(May 13, 2022). Anyone paying attention knows that Kendrick Lamar, the Pulitzer Prize-winning voice of a generation, dropped his first album in five years at midnight EDT Friday morning.
The long-awaited new set, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, hit streaming and digital platforms as the clock struck twelve, putting an end to all that nonsense GQ Magazine was talking in a cover story just a few weeks ago when it declared that Future was the greatest rapper alive, partially based on the notion that Kendrick couldn’t be in the discussion when he hadn’t put out an album in more than five years.
It’s been 1855 days exactly since K-Dot’s last album DAMN—itself a classic—dropped on April 14, 2017. I know this because Kendrick adeptly points it out on the new album’s opening track, not because I’ve been counting the days since the industry’s most lauded MC of the past ten years last graced us with new music (excluding the Black Panther soundtrack he curated in 2018).
Well, the new album is out now… and Kendrick is still the greatest of this generation.
Music critics, bloggers (including yours truly) and Black Twitter—ehh, make that all of Twitter—are no doubt analyzing and dissecting each of the 18 tracks on Mr. Morale, itself expected to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart week after next (displacing Bad Bunny, who is projected to displace Future on this Sunday’s tally). Most listeners are already dubbing Mr. Morale a classic.
But one track in particular grabbed this blogger’s attention, one that immediately brought to mind two similarly-themed songs on classic albums of the past—albums that are largely considered the best of their respective generations by two of the greatest artists ever.
Kendrick’s new track is “We Cry Together,” featuring dancer and actress Taylour Paige who goes toe to toe with Kendrick in a male-female battle for the ages. In the song, the two trade bars and insults in a well-acted argument where each one calls out the other for his/her shortcomings in their miserable relationship.
Kendrick gets the shit, err skit started as eerie music underscores the f-bomb, N-word, and B-word infused jam.
“I swear I’m tired of these emotional ass, ungrateful ass bitches. Unstable ass, confrontational ass, dumb bitches. You wanna bring a nigga down even when I’m tryin’ to do right. We can go our separate ways right now, you could move on with your life. I swear to God,” Kendrick raps.
Taylour quickly follows with her comeback:
“Fuck you nigga, you love a pity party…I won’t show up. Always act like your shit don’t stink, muthafucka grow up! Forever late for shit, won’t buy shit, sir around and deny shit. Fuck around on a side bitch then come fuckin up my shit?
And it just goes downhill from there… in as raw and compelling an argument on record as there has ever been.
The two keep this emotional back-and-forth argument going for more than five minutes, with the confrontation hitting an unexpected moment of clarity at the end when the two seemingly “make up.”
Their conflict is well-executed and clever in its delivery by both artists, with neither one giving in and neither definitively winning or losing the battle. At one point, Taylour’s emotions are so raw that her voice even cracks as she recalls how many friendships she sacrificed for this man. So evenly represented are the two sides of this argument, that when Kendrick utters “it’s a split decision” towards the end of the track, this listener initially wondered whether or not K.Dot was declaring a truce and referring to the compelling cases each party had just laid out (he’s not).
But their conflict-in-song (which is probably the heaviest track on the new album and one I looped at least four times after first hearing it) also brings to mind two classic male-female battles that were included in two of the greatest albums of earlier generations. And those earlier two couldn’t be more different from one another or from Kendrick-vs.-Taylour in 2022.
First, in 1976, Stevie Wonder’s iconic Songs In The Key Of Life LP included a song called “Ordinary Pain,” in which he played a forlorn man lamenting the loss of his woman. This plays out in a smooth melody and vocal for over two minutes with Stevie’s sad vibe invoking sympathy from anyone willing to listen:
“When by the phone, in vain you sit, you very soon in your mind realize that it’s not just an ordinary pain in your heart,” Stevie cries.
What he doesn’t mention in any of his ensuing verses and choruses is the philandering that likely led to the breakup. Not to worry, the female’s perspective is provided in a sudden hard-left turn as the song morphs from the wistful ballad into an all-out, funk-driven jam keyed by singer Shirley Brewer who screeches out her response to Wonder’s character:
“You’re just a masochistic fool, because you knew my love was cruel. You never listened when they said, ‘don’t let that girl go through your head,’” Shirley stings.
“But like a playboy you said no. This little girl’s mind you will blow. But then I blew you out the box, when I put my stuff on a key and lock.”
Shirley’s sharp and degrading retort to Stevie’s pity party continues for nearly four minutes and offers as big a contrast (and conflict) between male and female contained in one song as there had ever been up that point in time. Rarely, if ever, had both a male and female perspective of a relationship-gone-bad been presented by both parties in a soul song.
Fast forward two decades later (to 1997) and we find yet another example of both the male and female sides of an argument being presented in the same song.
The Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumously released album Life After Death contained a scathing battle between real-life former lovers Biggie and Lil’ Kim, where first Big and then Kim rhymed about the aspects of their relationship that weren’t so flattering.
In the song “Another,” which sampled the 1982 dance tune “Another Man” by Barbara Mason, Biggie starts: “I know he don’t treat you like I treat you; Time to explain your game is see-through…Sex is lethal, I ain’t gon’ lie. Means to get ya back, I ain’t gon’ try; Like this y’all, my girl sucked another nigga dick, y’all; Light skinned with the chromed out six, y’all. Thought they was creepin’, took trips to V-A every third weekend…”
After another minute or so and far more than 16 bars from Biggie, Kim tells her side of the story:
“Remember when you said you would die for me, shit, all of that was just lies to me. Motherfucker shoulda never said bye to me;
Now you cry for me, like Jodeci.
It’s like that y’all, my nigga hit another bitch from the back y’all; Black nasty and mad fat y’all; shoulda seen the ho. Nigga pack your shit, you out the do’, ohh!,” Kim raps.
It was one of the many collaborations on Biggie’s last true LP, but it was perhaps the most compelling because of the rawness with which he and Kim spit their bars. If you weren’t convinced that the two of them had been in and out of a relationship by the end of the song’s four minutes and fifteen seconds, you weren’t gonna be.
Like the two other male-female song conflicts highlighted in this story, Biggie’s “Another” was an example of how effective a duet can be when it’s done with a rawness that doesn’t pull any punches and showcases the true tension that can exist in a relationship when one or both parties is fed up with the other.
In each of the earlier cases—Stevie’s and Biggie’s—neither song was officially released as a single, but the albums containing them are, of course, iconic. Stevie’s Songs In The Key Of Life became the first by a Black artist to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in October 1976. It ultimately spent fourteen weeks at No. 1, generated two No. 1 pop and soul chart singles and has been certified Diamond by the RIAA.
Biggie’s Life After Death still stands as the album with the largest-ever jump to No. 1 on the Billboard 200 (from No. 176-1 in April 1997), owed to an early debut caused by street-date violations. Like Stevie’s Songs, Life also generated two No. 1 pop and soul chart hits (the first and only album to do that posthumously) and has been certified Diamond.
When Kendrick’s Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers makes its debut on the chart dated May 28, the only question will be how many records the long-awaited set breaks in the process.
One thing is certain, a No. 1 debut is a given, and the album has already staked its ground by having this unique link to two of the greatest albums of all time.
DJRob (he/him/his) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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