Welcome to “New Music with Nick.” In this column, I will be reviewing some of the most notable new album releases across various genres, focusing on hip-hop, R&B and pop music. Join me in exploring the ever-shifting landscape of the streaming era.
Kendrick Lamar: “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” (May 13, 2022)
After five years, the legend has finally returned. One of the most acclaimed and respected rappers of all time, Kendrick Lamar has arrived with his fifth studio album, “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.” After his first four albums — which have already cemented him as a historical great — everything done subsequently is really just building a generational legacy. With a discography as elite as nearly any hip-hop figure, he has never failed to reinvent his sound.
An already reclusive and mysterious celebrity, Kendrick Lamar’s tendency to seek isolation was unfortunately enabled by the COVID-19 pandemic. The period of isolation that left many people alone to reflect on their own thoughts certainly had the same effect on Lamar. His past work has focused on Compton, America and the world at large, encouraging people to come to terms with societal issues and deep cultural struggles. His newest work keeps all of these concepts in mind, but focuses inward more precisely than ever — taking on that responsibility of self-reflection, he delivers his most personal work to date.
From front to back, the album offers an intimate look into the life and mind of one of modern pop culture’s more honorable figures. The personal touch elevates the album and helps it stand out even amid Lamar’s grand collection. Seeing an artist with such a global reach and large platform being so vulnerable is simply beautiful.
If you’ve ever listened to Kendrick Lamar, you know that he has absolutely no fear of addressing any topic in his music. His newest album is no exception, and in fact makes some of his boldest and most courageous jumps content-wise. Lamar turns inward with a thoughtfulness, elegance and artistry that is breathtaking. Put simply, this project features some of his best storytelling and some of his most emotionally complex pieces.
“Father Time” provides a marvelous and emotional look at the issues that Lamar had with his father. Beyond its narrative, the song is sonically flawless and one of the greatest and most musically complete songs of his entire career. The intro dialogue, the Sampha chorus, the chord progressions, the elaborate production and every line of each verse all combine to make a perfect song. Not a single syllable is placed without care, not a single second wasted. All of this leads to one of the more foundational songs ever released by Kendrick Lamar.
“Mother I Sober” sees trauma addressed head-on in some of the most direct and heartbreaking music that he has made. It is a harrowing expression of guilt, abuse, trauma and regret — a reminder to the listener that Kendrick Lamar is human. The delivery is so acutely in touch with the emotions expressed and is one of the most moving songs hip-hop has heard in years.
In “We Cry Together,” comedy, grief, pain and distress are all effortlessly blended in a six-minute dialogue between an arguing couple. Although humor is present, the track also presents very real issues, like the damaging aspects of relationships. Most of the tracklist has a genuine depth and meaning that warrants its own analysis.
To be sure, though the album is remarkable, it isn’t without its flaws. Sonically, this might be the least cohesive studio album that Lamar has released. The sounds and structures are all over the place, providing nice diversity, but they also hurt the cohesion between certain tracks and sections of the album. The album’s extensive length also has its pros and cons, although the former outweighs the latter. To its benefit, the album’s length gives a greater depth of character and storytelling. To its detriment, however, the length furthers some of the dispersion of sound and continues the division between the sound and theme. That said, the album’s blemishes were few and far between.
“Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” is one of the most experimental mainstream releases that I have ever heard in hip-hop. In both structure and sound, the album was unique. Complexity and originality can be seen with idiosyncratic production and internal arrangements. Few artists in the mainstream release songs with such abstract choices in production, style and delivery — and few artists will place five-minute verses without hooks or consistently add more than two of their own verses to their songs. It is clear that his concern was authenticity and transparency, and that sales and the mainstream digestibility of the work were not priorities.
While listening to this album, consistently I have been left appreciating and recognizing the fact that there is only one artist in the world right now who could have done what he did. From a sonic standpoint, as well as from a standpoint of persona, energy, heart, soul and talent, he is undoubtedly one of a kind.
Kendrick Lamar is one of the most special artists to ever grace the world of music. Watching him develop as an artist and as a person has been truly special. Some music is so beautiful and powerful that it truly elevates the experience of being human: throughout his career, Lamar has consistently provided his listeners with that gift. We have to acknowledge the privilege of watching an all-time great change the world of music in real time. It was a critical work for him to deliver, with crucial stories for him to tell for his development as an artist and as a person. “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” is a masterpiece, and a beautiful cornerstone addition to a legendary discography.
Favorite Songs: “Father Time,” “Mother I Sober,” “United In Grief,” “Savior,” “We Cry Together,” “Auntie Diaries,” “Mr. Morale,” “Purple Hearts”
Album Score: 93/100
Check out this Spotify Playlist and like it to follow along with some of some of my favorite songs of 2022 as the year progresses!
Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.