Awaited for nearly five years, the Compton rapper’s stream-of-consciousness fifth album, “Mr. Morale and The Big Steppers”, turns out to be its author’s most intimate work.
In inverse proportion to the trajectory of his Chicagoan counterpart Kanye West, who orchestrating an ever more deafening cacophony with age and greedily devouring the media space as his record releases approach, Kendrick Lamar, more mute than ever, s has been cloistered for five years in silence and has communicated elliptically on the release of its fifth – and last? – scrapbook.
Announced lapidarily by means of a press release – in the manner of the retirement of legend Michael Jordan –, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers revealed itself upstream only by its messianic cover and, as usual, a new addition to the series of tracks The Heartwhich is not on the disc but still conveys the essence of the upcoming album.
This fifth installation – on a sample of the legendary I Want You by Marvin Gaye – foreshadows the oxymoronic nature of the man who, at the same time, withdrew into himself to the point of only recently collaborating with his cousin, Baby Keem, and exhibiting alongside Dr. Dre during the halftime of the biggest sporting event across the Atlantic, the Super Bowl.
Professing a “I want the hood to want me back”, Kendrick Lamar once again poses as a prophet with feet of clay, somewhere between the gap that remains between his globalized audience, the hood to whom he addresses his sermons and his own intimacy (his wife, Whitney Alford, his children, his family and himself).
The death of the ego
If he had already done DAMN. a resolutely personal album – whereas the day after Donald Trump’s election, the public expected a political projection from the content of his To Pimp A Butterfly –, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers digs a little more the furrow of introspection (and all that it contains of contradictions and hypocrisy) in the manner of the 808s & Heartbreak by Kanye West. Immodest to the core, this new double album from the native of Compton is rooted in the insecurities of its author: his deceptions, religion, his therapy sessions, his childhood and the implacability of systemic violence (racism, transphobia, homophobia, sexual violence, etc.).
Despite the crown of thorns adorning Kendrick Lamar’s head on the album cover (“Heavy is the head of him who chooses to wear the crown”he intones on the chorus of Crown), Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is the disc of an artist too imperfect to assume his role of saviour: “Real n**** don’t need therapy, what the fuck are you talking about”he intimates to his wife on Father Time (great moment of the disc with Sampha who reverses the daddy issues), before retracting (“Kendrick made you believe it, but he’s not your savior”) on Savior.
If, at times, this fifth effort struggles to recreate the musical virtuosity of TPAB and Good Kid, MAAD City or the urgency of DAMN., the armada of familiar producers (Sounwave, DJ Dahi…), the contribution of Pharrell Williams (Mr Morale), The Alchemist (We Cry Together) but above all the almost emaciated soul of Duval Timothy give the whole an organic setting that only N95 Where silent Hill come to disturb.
stream of consciousness
A certain idea of the ideal austerity to capture this passage to the other side of the mirror (18 pieces for 18 sessions with the shrink) brilliant with ambivalence: a work of healing, a work in progress at the heart of his insecurities frozen in motion. At “You need to talk to someone since you talk to everyone” (implied “You are responsible for how you speak to your audience”) struck by his wife at the start of the album (Father Time), Kendrick responds, skilfully, less by his certainties than by the paths of thought that lead to them.
From the very Eminem staging of We Cry Togetherto its intimate relationship to transidentity on My Auntiespassing through the auscultation of African-American figures (Oprah Winfrey, R. Kelly, Kanye West) with regard to systemic violence or the culture of rape in the superb piece shared with Beth Gibbons of Portishead, Mother I SoberKendrick Lamar reverses the figure of the lesson giver who will – often wrongly – stick to his skin to embrace a certain idea of the flow of consciousness and embrace uncertainty, research.
As such, this overlap and these back and forth between past and present, childhood and adulthood, his family then and that of today contribute to making Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers a Proustian record, fallible in certain aspects but obsessed – even in its therapeutic form – by its quest for identity, the workings of which it reveals here. Carried by an immutable faith, if not in God, in music, Kendrick proves, once again, that he has no equal to put in sound the meanders of his tortuous spirit: “Whenever I couldn’t find God, I could always find myself in a song.”
Kendrick Lamar- Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers (Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath/Interscope Records)