“We Knew This Was Going to Be a Tough Listen”: Sounwave On Making ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’ With Kendrick Lamar

It’s been more than two months since Kendrick Lamar’s fifth studio album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, was released to the public. But on a recent afternoon, the rapper’s longtime producer, Mark “Sounwave” Spears, is more than eager to dive right back in. It’s the first time anyone from Lamar’s camp has spoken at length on the project. Such silence has left many to wonder how Lamar and company feel about its reception. Because despite it being generally positively reviewed, without any standout singles to anchor the project, it was undoubtedly the Pulitzer Prize-winning emcee’s most divisive effort yet.

“We knew this album was going to be a tough listen,” Sounwave admits of a double LP that’s at times untidy, provokes and needles the listener, and forces one’s ear to pay an exacting level of attention to precisely what Lamar is saying.

As Sounwave explains, it was also the toughest one for him to work on, and, ultimately, complete. Because, as he admits in a candid conversation with GQ, Mr. Morale, paired with the isolation he felt during the pandemic, put him through an ordeal like never before. “It was beyond rough,” Sounwave says of the past few years. “But now we’re back in the swing of things.”

GQ: Last time we spoke, around the release of DAMN., you mentioned how you and Kendrick have a routine of not declaring an album finished until you listen to it on a car ride. I have to assume that happened again for Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers?

That is never going to change. I remember about a week before the album was coming out—the dates were locked in—I looked at Kendrick and I said, “You know it’s not going to come out unless we take this car ride.” And he was like “Yup.” And so we both drove our separate ways. And it’s always this emotion that you have to have. Well, for me at least. I have to feel this overwhelming feeling of “Wow, this it. It’s completed.” And if I don’t have that, I’m going to immediately call him up and say, “It’s not ready.” Usually, we are so linked to where if I don’t think it’s ready, he’ll be like “I’m 10 steps ahead of you. I’m changing this, this and this.” And fortunately enough, that last car ride, it was ready.

For DAMN., you had producers and artists sleeping in the studio. Did you do more work remotely this go-round, due to COVID?

You wanna jump right in? Let’s jump right in. This was the toughest and longest creative process for me. We didn’t necessarily have everyone come to us; we traveled. The first portion of the album—or the first brainstorming of the album—happened in London. We just took a couple of us—I think it was me, DJ Dahi, Baby Keem, Bekon—and we just created for a week in London, just to get out of our element and try something new. And in that session, I think, this is probably early 2019, only one song made it. But at that moment, we felt we had the full album, the core of the album done. But because of how life works, that was not the situation [laughs]. The only song that made it from that session was “Father Time.” And that’s because we had an amazing session with Sampha. He pulled up and that song was just so undeniable that it was the only one that slid through the cracks of everything else. So yeah, we traveled here and there, but when it came down to locking everything in, we always have to find that natural place that we’re all comfortable, and just lock in and iron out all the edges.