There’s a growing tendency to over-analyse Kendrick Lamar. A recent much-mocked tweet puts it into perspective – the rapper’s decision to stand slightly to one side in his latest video was taken to be a reference to the position of the human heart, and a metaphor for life itself. While we certainly don’t endorse transforming every single detail of his work into extended theories on the nature of existence, this instinct pays testimony to the authored approach Kendrick takes – in his work, each aspect speaks to the other, and a song can turn on the tiniest of details.
It's this approach that makes reviewing ‘Mr Morale & The Big Steppers’ such an imposing task. Writing on its first morning of release, we’ve already heard the album in full over a half dozen times, and pored over the initial tweets and reactions. Yet as an object, it’s diamond-like in its ability to refract light, and to continually break down, only to reform and shape-shift into something else.
Structurally, it’s split into two chapters of nine tracks, just over one hour of music. And what music it is. ‘United In Grief’ contains truly astonishing penmanship, and the exquisite detail of the arrangement is almost marbled in its perfection. ‘Worldwide Steppers’ is a joy, while ‘Purple Hearts’ is anthemic, challenging.
Indeed, it’s almost reductive to list the highs of such a record. A flood of creativity, Kendrick Lamar grabs you from the first note, and the quality never ever dims. It’s often the more understated moments that leave a lasting impression – Sampha’s god tier vocal on ‘Father Time’, or the manner in which ‘Rich’, a mere interlude, is transformed by the use of dense, modern classical piano lines.
Capable of crudity and profundity in the same song, the world of ‘Mr Morale & The Big Steppers’ finds room for the hilarity of ‘We Cry Together’ for example, and hushed intensity of ‘Mother I Sober’, a dark song lit up by a wonderful, wonderful vocal from Beth Gibbons.
Such artistry essentially makes a mockery of the review process. Analysing this record would take a full academic tome, not a blog post. A rich, enriching experience, it’s made all the more remarkable for its place in his life. Other – lesser – artists would have cashed in by now, the endless Drake-style brand-building that has beset his peers. But Kendrick Lamar isn’t building a career, he’s crafting masterpieces, and make no mistake: ‘Mr Morale & The Big Steppers’ is one of his most profound, complex, revelatory statements yet, a double album fuelled by sonic ambition, the will to communicate, and Kendrick’s staunch refusal to walk the easy path.
Words: Robin Murray
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