24. Kendrick Lamar: Mr Morale & The Big Steppers

And so we arrive at our final destination: window 24 of the Musical Advent. Completing this odyssey through 2022, as is the convention, is my album of the year. Sometimes it is a difficult choice; other times more straightforward. There was never any doubt in 2022 – at least not after 13th May. That’s when I met Kendrick Lamar’s Mr Morale & The Big Steppers.

From the moment I first heard this album it was obvious that I wasn’t listening to anything less than exceptional. Of course, I kinda anticipated that in advance. This momentous achievement was foreshadowed by the brilliance of To Pimp A Butterfly and Damn. Mr Morale & The Big Steppers possibly goes even further. This isn’t merely an album. This is a work of high art, quite possibly the most important artistic endeavour, of any medium, of 2022.

Let’s talk about genre. The lazy attitude to Kendrick Lamar is to bracket his music alongside other hip-hop artists. But it’s not. That’s like putting David Lynch and Jed Mercurio in the same box because they both produce stuff that is viewed on a screen. But Lamar transcends genre or categorisation. His work sprawls. 

The visceral assault of the first three tracks gives a clue to Lamar’s frame of mind. “Hello new world, all the boys and girls/I got some stories to tell” he sings on N95. The title is a clear reference to the facemasks that became the foremost symbol of covid, one of several recurring topics. N95 is flanked by United In Grief and the brusqueness of Worldwide Steppers. Together they form a jittery, frenetic and paranoid opening passage of tracks.

Equally terse, and initially shocking, is the argument-as-song that is We Cry Together. Lamar’s dramatic and pugilistic confrontation with Taylour Paige is engrossing. It is like watching a pile-up at seventy miles-per-hour on a motorway. But there is incredible contrast to the tracks I have called out already, such as the minimalist piano throughout the brilliant Savior and the exquisite, sweeping strings that usher in Father Time.

The themes tackled by Lamar are typically colossal. He skips from Black masculinity to the responsibility of being a role model and a parent. On more than one occasion, he references his children, but the most powerful family references come when he reflects upon his own childhood. Most notably, on Father Time he sings “I got daddy issues, that’s on me/looking for ‘I love you’…”. On the haunting Mother|Sober, featuring the sublime voice of Portishead’s Beth Gibbons, he addresses how abuse impacted his home life as a youngster. Auntie Diaries reveals how he stood by as trans relative when nobody else in the family was prepared to accept them.

Lamar’s attention to detail is astounding and that extends to the cover art. Here are his family. He is holding his baby daughter whilst his partner breast feeds their baby son. It is a beautiful family portrait. Yet, Lamar wears a diamond-encrusted crown, headgear that is clearly designed to symbolise his crown of thorns. If in doubt, check out the closing minutes to his seminal headlining Glastonbury show this summer. In his waistband is a pistol. Kids and guns; the polarity, the complexity. It’s almost as though he is asking what we expect of Kendrick Lamar?

Mr Morale & The Big Steppers is a complex album by a complex artist. It is also pure genius, a record that will sustain for decades. This is this generation’s What’s Going On or Songs In The Key Of Life or A Love Supreme or Fear Of A Black Planet. It is that important. It is obviously my album of the year.      

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