Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé are the most acclaimed black music makers of their time.
Between them, the Compton rapper and Houston-born megastar have won 42 Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize. (Although in an ongoing injustice, neither has been honored with the prestigious Grammy Album of the Year. Taylor Swift and Adele have five combined.)
Neither artist reigns on the roost of popularity. Drake, Swift and Adele make bigger numbers when it comes to sales and streams. But both have achieved exalted status as significant artists who advance culture while commanding mass audiences.
Beyoncé, who has 28 of those Grammys, is Queen Bey, “the greatest living artist in the world”, according to Rolling Stone. (And who would argue? No one wants to avoid BeyHive’s wrath.)
Lamar is widely considered the most talented rapper of his generation. His 2017 album DAMN. has been showered with praise, making Lamar the first pop music creator to receive a Pulitzer. It is “a collection of virtuoso songs”, the committee wrote, “…that offers moving vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life”.
So when Lamar or Beyoncé release a new project, it registers as a cultural event. And this pop music season, they gave us two, with each author returning with a new work that shows how they respond to turbulent times. One is full of joy and the other full of tension.
Mr. Morale and Big Stepswhich was released in May, is a double album, a heavyweight undertaking that is Lamar’s first full-fledged artistic statement since DAMN.
The album brings him to South Philly on Tuesday, when his Big Steppers tour, which also includes his cousin Baby Keem and Tanna Leone, a rapper signed to his pgLang label, arrives at the Wells Fargo Center.
Meanwhile, in case you haven’t heard, Beyoncé is back. His return also comes after a long absence. Lemonadewhich included the powerful release song “Freedom” featuring Lamar, was released in 2016.
by Beyoncé Renaissance is just one album, but it’s part of a planned trilogy, “a three-act project,” she says, “recorded over three years during the pandemic.” The title clearly displays its ambition, evoking artistic renaissances from Florence in the 14th century to Harlem in the 20th.
After DAMN. and LemonadeLamar and Beyoncé embarked on music for film projects exploring black identity through a pop cultural lens.
Lamar supervised and appeared on the soundtrack of Black Pantherthe superhero film starring Chadwick Boseman set in the fictional East African Wakanda, it was released in 2018, the year Lamar played an electrifying headliner at Made in America, the Philadelphia festival hosted by Beyoncé’s husband, Jay-Z.
In 2019, Beyoncé – who twice headlined Made in America – starred in and produced the soundtrack for Disney’s computer-animated remake of The Lion King, teaming up with Lamar again, on “Nile”. The following year, she used this music as a starting point for black is kinga Disney+ movie she directed and starred in.
READ MORE: Beyoncé’s ‘Black Is King’ is beautiful, powerful, personal and very, very, Beyoncé
Coupled with “Black Parade,” the protest song released after the 2020 police killing of George Floyd, black is king worked as a Black Pride manifesto. Protesters marched that summer in both “Black Parade” and Lamar’s tough-minded “Alright,” beginning in 2015. Pimp a butterfly.
The socially conscious push of “Black Parade” and Lemonade The “training” has led many to expect Renaissance would have a political bent, an impression that was reinforced by a song title: “America has a problem”.
But with her many attributes, Beyoncé is good at reading the room. And she surely realized that her fans needed to be stimulated and released. Renaissance is a celebration of resilience, of course, as expressed in the lead single, which introduces hard-hitting house music emphasizing, “You won’t break my soul.”
As has been well documented since its release, Renaissance is a celebration of black queer dance music. It incorporates references to the history of house and underground techno and touchstones like Chic, whose guitarist Nile Rodgers plays on the irresistible “Cuff It”. A tribute is paid to Donna Summer, and New Orleans bouncy music queen Big Freedia urges dancers to “free your movement.”
Renaissance has been the subject of some criticism. Kelis spoke out on social media, saying she didn’t give permission for her 2003 song “Milkshake” to be used on “Energy.” Beyoncé has since deleted the brief tween, just like she deleted a lyric in “Heated” after being criticized for being ableist. (Yes, that’s the same term Lizzo was recently forced to drop from her hit “Grrrls.”)
But the album, which so far has been released without any video – after all of his recent albums have been full of them – is most rightly celebrated for what it is: a celebratory entry that will give you a rather than to break your soul. . The problem plaguing “America” is never specified, but it is suggested that any solution should include a sensual prerogative: “Booty gon’ do what it want to.”
The album cover features Beyoncé in a bikini barely there on a holographic horse in what appears to be a reference to a photo of Bianca Jagger at Studio 54 in 1977. In the Instagram post in which she revealed the cover, Beyoncé said write what to do Renaissance “allowed me to feel free and adventurous in a time when nothing else was moving. My intention was to create a place to scream, to break free, to feel freedom. I hope you find joy in this music.
This feeling of liberation and joy is not what Mr Morale is all about. Lamar’s opus is a tense yet extremely dense production that grapples with issues of black masculinity and is weighed down by the burden of being a voice of his generation.
The edginess is there on the album cover, which couldn’t contrast more starkly with Beyoncé as dance floor Lady Godiva. Lamar and his fiancée Whitney Alford are pictured with their two children, the rapper holding one in his arms as he looks off camera. A gun is tucked into his pants and a crown of thorns is placed on his head. Trouble is coming.
No one expects Kendrick Lamar to make party music, so it’s no surprise that Mr Morale is not full of dance floor bangers. And returning to his career-making 2012 album good kid, mAd City, Lamar has always been the most self-analytical of rappers. The combination of his contemplative and combative sides is a big part of what makes him great.
Still, Mr Morale it’s striking how much pressure he’s under to be some kind of hip-hop oracle. This tension has been there from the start, as Lamar confides “I’m going through something” and cites the exact number of days that passed between the release of DAMN. and That of Mr. Morale Release.
Lamar finds some release in dealing with personal trauma in Mr Morale, but he also spends a lot of time feeling agitated by the expectations placed on him. Unlike Beyoncé on Renaissancehe bears the burden lightly.
When the Big Steppers Tour plays Wells Fargo on Tuesday, it will be fascinating to see if he can turn that tension into live catharsis. Looking at concert listings since the tour began last month, we find that Lamar started and ended concerts with a song by Mr Morale whose title expresses something he has no interest in being, on the dance floor or otherwise: “Savior”.
The Big Stepper Tour with Kendrick Lamar, Baby Keem and Tanna Leone at the Wells Fargo Center, 3601 S. Broad St., at 7:30 p.m. on August 9. $59-$169, wellsfargocenterphilly.com.