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. (Though in an ongoing injustice, neither has been honored with the prestigious album of the year Grammy. Taylor Swift and Adele have a combined five.)
Neither artist rules the popularity roost. Drake, Swift, and Adele do bigger numbers when it comes to sales and streams. But both have attained exalted status as artists of importance who push the culture forward while commanding a mass audience.
Beyoncé, who has 28 of those Grammys, is Queen Bey, “the world’s greatest living entertainer,” according to Rolling Stone. (And who would argue? No one who wants to avoid the wrath of the BeyHive.)
Lamar is widely regarded as the most skilled rapper of his generation. His 2017 album DAMN. was lavished with praise, making Lamar the first pop music maker to be bestowed with a Pulitzer. It’s “a virtuosic song collection,” the committee wrote, “… that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African American life.”
So when either Lamar or Beyoncé releases a new project, it registers as a cultural event. And this pop music season, they’ve gifted us with two, with each auteur returning with a new work that shows how they respond to turbulent times. One is full of joy, and one is fraught with tension.
Mr. Morale & the Big Stepperswhich came out in May, is a double album, a weighty endeavor that’s Lamar’s first full-blown 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. Her return also comes after a long absence. Lemonadewhich included the powerful liberation song “Freedom” with Lamar, came out way back in 2016.
Beyoncé’s Renaissance is only a single album, but it’s part of a planned trilogy, “a three-act project,” she’s said, “recorded over three years during the pandemic.” The title makes its ambition clear, evoking artistic rebirths from Florence in the 14th century to Harlem in the 20th.
After DAMN. and Lemonadeboth Lamar and Beyoncé embarked on music for film projects that explored Black identity through a pop cultural lens.
Lamar oversaw and appeared on the soundtrack to Black Pantherthe Chadwick Boseman-starring superhero movie set in fictional East African Wakanda, It came out in 2018, the year Lamar played a electrifying headlining set at Made in America, the Philadelphia festival curated by Beyoncé’s husband Jay-Z.
In 2019, Beyoncé — who’s headlined Made in America twice — performed on and produced the soundtrack for the Disney computer-animated remake of The Lion Kingagain teaming with Lamar, on “Nile.” The next year, she used that music as a starting point for Black Is Kinga Disney+ film 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 police killing of George Floyd in 2020, Black Is King worked as a manifesto of Black Pride. Demonstrators marched that summer to both “Black Parade” and Lamar’s tough-minded “Alright,” from 2015′s To Pimp a Butterfly.
The socially conscious thrust of “Black Parade” and Lemonade’s “Formation” led many to expect Renaissance would have a political bent, an impression that was furthered by a song title: “America Has a Problem.”
But along with her many attributes, Beyoncé is skilled at reading the room. And she surely realized her fans are in need of uplift and release. Renaissance is a celebration of resilience, for sure, as voiced in the lead single, which introduces thumping house music as it insists: “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 underground house and techno history and touchstones like Chic, whose guitarist Nile Rodgers plays on the irresistible “Cuff It.” Donna Summer is paid homage to, and New Orleans bounce music queen Big Freedia exhorts dancers to “release your wiggle.”
Renaissance has come under some criticism. Kelis spoke out on social media, saying she hadn’t given permission for use of her 2003 song “Milkshake,” to be used on “Energy.” Beyoncé has since excised the brief interpolation, just as she has removed a lyric in “Heated” after it came under criticism for being ableist. (Yes, it’s the same term that Lizzo was recently pressured to remove from her hit “Grrrls.)
But the album, which so far has been released without any videos — after all of her recent albums were full of them — is mostly being rightly celebrated for what it is: a party starter that’ll provide a balm, rather than break your soul . The problem plaguing “America” is never spelled out, but it’s suggested that any solution should include a sensual prerogative: “Booty gon’ do what it want to.”
The album cover pictures Beyoncé in a barely-there bikini atop a holographic horse in what seems 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 wrote that making Renaissance “allowed me to feel free and adventurous in a time when little else was moving. My intention was to create a place to scream, release, feel freedom. i hope you find joy in this music.”
That sense of release and joy is not what Mr. Morale is all about. Lamar’s opus is an altogether tense and extremely dense production that grapples with issues of Black masculinity and is weighted with the burden of being a voice of his generation.
The edginess is right there on the album cover, which couldn’t contrast more sharply with Beyoncé as a dance floor Lady Godiva. Lamar and his fiancee Whitney Alford are pictured with their two children, with the rapper holding one in his arms as he looks off camera. A gun is tucked into his trousers and a crown of thorns sits on his head. Trouble is coming.
Nobody expects Kendrick Lamar to make party music, so it’s no big surprise that Mr. Morale is not full of dance floor bangers. And going back to his career-making 2012 album good kid, mAAd CityLamar has always been the most self-analytical of rappers. The combination of his contemplative and combative sides are a big part of what makes him great.
Still, Mr. Morale is striking in how weighted he is with the pressure to be a sort of hip-hop oracle. That tension is there from the start, as Lamar confides “I been going through something” and cites the exact number of days that passed between the release of DAMN. and Mr. Morale’s release.
Lamar does find a measure of release in confronting personal trauma in Mr. Moralebut he also spends a lot of time feeling agitated about the expectation placed upon him. Unlike Beyoncé on Renaissancehe does carry the burden lightly.
When the Big Steppers tour plays the Wells Fargo on Tuesday, it will be fascinating to see if he can turn that tension into in-concert catharsis. Looking at the set lists of shows since the tour started up last month reveals that Lamar has been starting and ending the shows with a song from 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 pm Aug. 9. $59-$169, wellsfargocenterphilly.com.