Kyle Smedley is a journalism and telecommunications major and writes for The Daily News. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper.
No one makes music like this right now.
After 1,855 days, Kendrick Lamar reminded the world that he is a musical genius with his return album "Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers". It’s been five years since Lamar’s last album, "DAMN.", and it’s safe to say this was worth the wait.
In the five years between the two albums, Lamar produced and released "Black Panther The Album Music From And Inspired By" where he featured on five of 18 songs. He also featured on a plethora of songs in the time between and released a single May 8, 2022 (five days before his new album) titled "The Heart Part 5".
No, Kendrick hasn’t been sitting on his couch being lazy while he took an album hiatus, he toured the globe, performed at the Super Bowl 56 Pepsi Halftime Show and took time to perfect his craft. While his latest album is not perfect, it’s a breath of fresh air in 2022’s rap scene.
If interested in listening to ”Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers”, it can be found on Spotify, Apple music or any other music streaming platform.
In this writer’s, and music fan’s, eyes hip-hop has become fairly one-dimensional. I’m not here to preach on why rap has fallen from grace, but this is an important point when examining what makes "Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers" so great.
I often find myself unable to engage in conversations with my colleagues about rappers of today because I simply don’t enjoy their music. My biggest reason for loving music is my biggest reason for loving film, television, sports and every form of entertainment, and that's storytelling.
Music has the advantage of telling stories differently than any other medium. Kendrick Lamar has always capitalized on that advantage like few other hip-hop artists ever have.
What makes Lamar one of the greatest rappers of all time is his ability to tell deep and layered stories that matter while making them easily accessible. His intros to songs often appear multiple times throughout an album to convey the overarching message and the beats he raps over continue to amaze.
Take “Father Time”, the fifth track off his latest album, for example. This track is all about not only Lamar’s relationship with his father but fathers in general. Add in Sampha to sing the chorus beautifully and it’s a song with rich themes that is easy to listen to and become invested in.
There are three songs on this album that may not be the most accessible, but they are accessible enough that the person listening to the tracks knows they are listening to an important, and great, piece of music. These three songs are truly important and essential to understanding Lamar’s personal journey as well as what hip-hop can be.
The first of which is "We Cry Together". Now, this song is genuinely difficult to listen to, as the five-minute and 41-second track is an argument between Lamar and actress/singer Taylour Paige introduced with the simple line, “this is what America sounds like.” The track is very similar to Eminem’s "Kim", released in 2000 on "The Marshall Mathers LP" in that it’s an excruciating listen, but the listener knows they are hearing something important.
This song’s argument outlines America’s issue with toxic and abusive relationships perfectly and while it’s not the most replayable track on the album, it’s one of the most thematically rich. This is the one song on the album I advise listeners not to listen to unless they have headphones on and are mentally prepared for the explicit language and brutal storytelling.
Second is “Auntie Diaries”. I’ve never heard a rap song like this before, where Lamar dives into two instances where a member of his family changes their gender, which Lamar sums up with the lyrics “my auntie is a man now” and “Demetrius is Mary-Ann now”. This song touches on subjects music in general often doesn’t flesh out this explicitly.
Lamar even draws controversy when he repeatedly says a homophobic slur, outlining the foolishness and shallow nature of his young mind before being transformed through first-hand experience. The track and album as a whole touch on his religious conflict and journey in that regard as well.
Lastly is “Mother I Sober”, a song that is difficult to listen to, but turns from heartbreaking to heartwarming once the listener reaches the end. The six-minute and 46-second track features Lamar narrating his experience and journey with alcoholism in his family.
He details watching family members of his struggle with addiction to alcohol, where he eventually found himself. As the song reaches its climax, Lamar details his road to the point where he is now and that’s sober.
The end of the song features Lamar’s partner Whitney and daughter saying, “You did it. I'm proud of you. You broke a generational curse. Say, "Thank you dad.", Whitney said. “Thank you daddy, thank you mommy, thank you brother,” their young daughter said.
All said, this album features a litany of songs that are easy and fun to listen to, such as “N95”, “Die Hard” and “Rich Spirit”. Every song on the album touches on deep themes in some form or fashion, whether that be themes discussed earlier, or new themes and events like using money to cope with loss, race, loyalty, responsibility, motivation, COVID-19 and worth.
I've now had a full week to sit on and listen to this album over and over again, I've come to the conclusion that while this album may not be for everyone and is certainly not the most fun to listen to out of Lamar’s discography (that would be “DAMN.” for me), it’s an important and dare I say essential listen for anyone who is a fan of rap and musical storytelling in general.
To put a bow on this review, “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” is not Lamar’s magnum opus (that would be 2015’s “To Pimp A Butterfly”), but it’s easily the best album of 2022 so far and very well could be the best album of the decade so far. As stated earlier, Lamar is officially back with lyrics that are just as thematic, relatable and accessible as ever, while also providing his audience with new flows and different storytelling to show everyone how he has evolved over the last five years and further cemented himself as an all-time great.
Contact Kyle Smedley with comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @smedley1932.