Florence gets Dance Fever, the Stones open their archives – the best albums of the week
Kendrick Lamar, Mr Morale and big steps ★★★★☆
Teased since last summer and anticipated for the five years since his last Pulitzer Prize-winning album, DAMN., Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar’s fifth album arrives as a heavy double-disc treatise and without a disclaimer in which he unlocks epiphanies about masculinity, generational trauma, the nuances and contradictions of the black community of which he has become an anointed spokesperson.
Mr Morale & the Big Steppers loosely follows the structure of a therapy section. Lamar works through grief. It’s not specifically listed for who, but an educated guess might land on Nipsey Hussle, another West Coast rapper who was shot and killed in 2019. Not that that’s the point: it’s Lamar who’s there to find something.
After years of holding a mirror up to the world, showing us structural racism and growing fissures in civil society, Lamar is now turning the mirror back on himself. His music, always imbued with a theatrical verve, has become denser and more complex. Here, on the opening track alone, there’s plainsong, clanking jazz drums, incidental piano, cinematic strings, and waves and waves of multi-syllables. It would be exhausting if it weren’t so invigorating. Does he occasionally bite off more than a four-minute song can swallow? Yes.
Is it important? Not really. Because if you can look past the occasional punch – the “stop tap-dancing around the conversation” command that closes the otherwise stunning We Cry Together is the most glaring example here – then there’s so much reward. And since the compositions are often so rich and exciting – rolling drums, thunderous bass and silky but staccato pianos on the Father Time sung by Sampha; the organs balanced on Worldwide Steppers – the odd knock is only fleeting. People love Lamar because he takes big swings.
When Mother I Sober arrives, one track before the end, it feels like the two records, and possibly five albums, have built up to this point – towards a “breakthrough”, to borrow the therapist’s term. On a spare piano and assisted by Beth Gibbons of Portishead, Lamar recounts watching his mother being abused and follows the thread of generational trauma, refracting it through historic slavery, to land on the actions that shaped his own life. The listener receives Lamar’s private epiphany in real time.
It’s masterful, tender and totally raw. The closing song, Mirror, knots the bow with rising strings and the sense of a relieved smile stretching Lamar’s cheeks, as he sings “I choose myself, I’m sorry”, and leaves with one last piece of advice. : “Do yourself a favor and get a mirror / This grievance mirror. Will Pritchard