Peel the Onion | Kendrick Lamar: Mr Morale & the Big Steppers review - vital, spiritual rap
Perhaps it's safe to say that music lovers overestimate how much an average person cares about music. Nowadays, albums are long-form artistic statements consumed like films — play once, thumbs up or down. Onto the next thing, whatever that may be. Rarely is it a reflection of the quality of the work. Rather modern listeners have an infinite flowing musical waterfall at their fingertips on streaming platforms like Spotify. Spotify playlists, for example, serve the average music listener with casual, almost background music listening experiences. And as long as the music doesn't annoy or offend them, they'll happily nod along with whatever sound palette is in fashion.
But some people love music enough to make and buoy the careers of heritage artists like Kendrick Lamar, who seems to command close listening and analysis with every release. And that's a rare power these days. That he pulls in the average listener to consume albums as albums should be consumed is culturally notable. It's an event.
Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers is Lamar's latest offering, a double LP and his first release since 2017's DAMN. an album that earned him the prestige of being the first rapper to win a Pulitzer Prize for music. The only other notable musical entry was Bob Dylan in the 1960s. Both Dylan and Lamar ascended to a tier of artist caliber that reflected the times and social tides through their art considerably. They are, in effect, zeitgeist bottlers.
"Big Steppers" is Lamar's fifth full-length album outing after a lengthy break from the spotlight since DAMN., which for me, was a personal favorite from 2017. The Pulitzer Prize administration described DAMN. as "a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life."
The beats were so hard-hitting and expensive-sounding that they rattled systems and phones and laptops with trap literate production techniques that were on point and of the moment. But DAMN. was dark and desperate, and the front cover said as much with Lamar looking down and dejected — guilt and shame and 10,000 pounds of toxic sludge hanging over him. Not something a significant star's image should portray on a highly-anticipated album. As a statement, it was loud and abrasive, like the hard beats and the lyrical content of DAMN. in general.
The cover of "Big Steppers" sees Lamar in a better place featuring the public debut of his two young children along with their mother, reportedly Lamar's high-school sweetheart Whitney Alford. As he holds one of the children, he wears a crown of thorns, and there's a gun tucked into his belt at the back. You get a sense of paranoia and the need to protect his family at all costs.
Musically the album is stylistically satisfying in that it manages to throw nods at all of Lamar's releases to date. There's the struggle and redemption from 2015's To Pimp a Butterfly and the positive, even uplifting vibes and subject matter from 2012's good kid, m.A.A.d city.
The first track off of Disc 1 is "United in Grief," which opens with the words I hope you find some peace of mind in this lifetime which functions as a philosophical overture for what's to come. The music is dramatic and expertly produced with revolving sound effects and disjointed piano passages. Lamar's high-octave nasal delivery is instantly recognizable away from his peers as he raps about his American Dream and how all the attention and success didn't fix his internal emotions. As ever, his fiery, passionate flows demand your attention.
The next track, "N95," lends comfort to a universe changed: The world in a panic, he raps. Soon after, "Die Hard" references Lamar's Black trauma savior complex directly with the words: Heavy is the head that wears the crown; you can't please everybody. It's a weary acceptance of his position in culture and society and one he doesn't take lightly in terms of responsibility. Still, he can't be too hard on himself, and he needs to keep something of himself for himself.
Then suddenly, there's a reference to the Oprah-approved German self-help guru Eckhart Tolle. In fact, to my surprise, Lamar peppers all of these songs with Tolle's teachings on the pain-body — "the dark shadow cast by the ego, which is afraid of the light of your consciousness" and the concept of love as a state of Being — One thing I've learned, love can change with the seasons, Lamar raps on Disc 2's "Crown."
The album is simply too long to go through track by track. There are just too many intricacies and inverted references that are inexplicable beyond experiencing the production for yourself. And even then, you might not "get" everything. But that's what you want. You want your music to suck you into the artist's head as they paint a world vision from their lives that relates to you. Spotify playlists be damned; there is no way to experience an artist like Lamar without your total, undivided attention.
Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers sounds flawless and is mixed and produced flawlessly, flowing like an aural waterfall of purity to distinguish it from the abundance of streaming noise around it. It's an album that meets your expectations in how Lamar knows himself to push the conversation forward on how art should be consumed and how it should be delivered. "Big Steppers" isn't music you listen to casually with friends in the gym or at a party. It's music you listen to alone with his thoughts and yours, reflecting on the world around you and yourself from within.
As he would refer himself, J.B. Browne is a half "foreign devil" living with anxiety relieved by purchase. HK-born Writer/Musician/Tinkerer.
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