I’m a few weeks into processing Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. Here’s what I’m thinking.
Kendrick’s the closest thing we’ve got to a modern Miles Davis. He’s going to push boundaries. We shouldn’t be surprised by him, we should expect to be surprised. And that means not loving everything he does.
What we should (hopefully continue to) love is his artistic daringness. Most artists will never try as hard as Kendrick and produce this level of output. Rarely do we see someone so commercially viable and socially relevant, all at the same time.
[I’m still ranting for another minute here]
What could go wrong?
Hopefully, he’s proven he’s not Taylor Swift. Unless he starts gunning for more Pulitzers like she was gunning for hit songs (still is? What’s your take?). There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make hits, but it is as much an internal motivator as it is an external constraint. Kendrick seems free of any “hit” obsesion.
He’s also not Kanye West, unless he starts to break from reality and join some meta-reality (are all the Kardashians taken? Can we just make sure he stays away from all of that?). Again, fame doesn’t seem to be a motivator here either. If anything, he seems to be shy of the limelight and underwriting that space by revealing some of the darker sides of his humanity on this most recent record.
When I think about businesses, I like to think about other arcs or paths prior businesses followed. It’s cool to think of them in ages, as previously discussed here. It gives us milestones to think about how they’re progressing, and gives us base rates (or other comparisons) via collections of companies who took a similar path.
Back to Kendrick. The closest path I can relate to his seems like Miles Davis’. Overly Dedicated and Section 8.0 are the early bands and maybe up to Birth of the Cool. They’re the proof of his emergent expertise over the popular formats, with some early indications of a coming break to new heights.
Good Kid and Butterfly are the hard-bop, killer acoustic band-era records. These are my favorite Miles records for how structured they are, existing a cut above everyone else’s attempts at similar formats. Kendrick similarly gives us Pulitzer-worthy lyricism on top of genre-seam busting beats. Incredible stuff.
Damn and the Black Panther Soundtrack are the beginnings of the reach out towards “what next?” This is close to Miles’ Nefertiti moment in my mind. He’s still old Kendrick but ready to push to a new boundary, he just isn’t sure what it is yet – which lends to the searching feeling. It’s Miles and the band still playing all acoustic instruments, but experimenting with some new sounds and formats.
Mr. Morale is the crossover, a la Miles in the Sky. Kendick’s shedding of the savior complex and metaphors is Miles’ shedding of the acoustic instruments. These are new feelings. They’re nuanced and complicated, and they may not represent our favorite stuff, but they are important for the progression.
All of this is my way of saying – where I’m predicting he goes next is full Bitches Brew / On the Corner. I’m genuinely hoping Kendrick is about to get… weird. Gloriously weird. Crazily collaborative. Hopefully.
Miles had a return to form after that, but like all things art, they’re a young person’s game to the extent they decide what they’re interested in and why. Kendrick is going to find his way through a similar path, I am venturing to guess.
Mr. Morale is worth our attention and studying, but not through the same lens of the previous works, and that’s why I think something like a Miles Davis arc can be helpful in understanding where we might be in the evolution of one of our time’s most important artists. Especially if you, like me, appreciate this new record but don’t see myself playing it to death like some of the other works.
How do you see it? Is there another artist you’re expecting Kendrick’s path to rhyme in step with? What about this record? Love it, hate it, can’t tell yet? Let me know.