Kendrick Lamar has a way of starting conversations and ending debates. After all, the Compton rapper has positioned himself somewhere in the no man’s land between the old and new schools of hip-hop: on one hand relied upon by the old guard as a rare beacon of hope for young rap music in strange, autotuned times, and on the other hand expected by many fans to deliver the sort of highly listenable, funny, relevant music that mainstream listeners expect from an artist who has collaborated with Taylor Swift on Number 1 singles and whose second album sold 242,000 copies in its first week. Last year, Lamar made a pointed statement with his political, revolutionary masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly, summoning mid-century jazz, golden era funk, abstract experimentation, and the ghost of Tupac Shakur to craft a deliriously original work that captured and ruminated upon the current cultural unrest of the black community.
As we wrote when we placed TPAB on the top slot of our countdown of 2015’s best albums: ”Musically, Butterfly is a kaleidoscope, dizzying in spectrum and brilliance, one minute shuffling along bebop lines, the other minute blasting us with aggressive punk hop, early-’90s G-funk, or laid back R&B. It is his inimitable talent as creative director that makes Lamar so unique and so valuable; few rappers working today are capable of making records such as this.” In the year since TPAB’s release, that album has already become a byword for real and meaningful hip-hop, an alternative to the boastful bullshit that many less imaginative artists recycle on an album-to-album basis.
Lamar’s Kunta’s Groove Sessions were a string of live performances that once and for all established his powerful charisma and old school appeal in front of adoring fans. Performing with a full live band and analogue, improvised instrumentation, Lamar dazzled audiences and earned a reputation as one of the must-see performers of the past year. It is in this climate, in which Lamar is viewed as a brilliant, perfectionistic, somewhat reclusive connoisseur of all that is great about classic rap music, that his latest release arrives. Though technically not an album, rather a collection of demos originally drafted during the TPAB recording sessions, untitled unmastered. contains previously unheard compositions alongside a couple of tracks first fleshed out on live television in one-off jam sessions.
"I got a chamber of material from the album that I was in love [with] where sample clearances or something as simple as a deadline kept it off the album,” Lamar told Grammy.com after his showstopping medley performance at this year’s award ceremony (during which Lamar also won five awards for last year’s output). Soon - barely a week after LeBron James publically called upon Lamar to release this untitled material - the rapper surprised fans the world over with the sudden announcement that untitled unmastered. was available to stream. Physical versions have been made available this week, and at this point it ceases to matter whether we call this release a mixtape, a compilation of demos, an EP, or an album. It’s enough to be grateful that new music has arrived, directly from one of the most exciting voices of modern times.
In many ways it feels disingenuous to review a Kendrick Lamar release a week after hearing it for the first time. Not that the world’s music press didn’t already reach their conclusions, levelling high-but-not-TPAB-high praise at untitled unmastered. after only a few days. One would have thought that after the release of TPAB, it might have been evident that Lamar’s work required more unravelling, more reflection than a few days’ time allows. That was a legendarily difficult album to process, let alone review, and yet many conclusions were preemptively drawn at the time of its release. The fact remains that artistic statements like TPAB derive a large part of their worth from their context, not necessarily from a consistently repeatable collection of flawless songs. I haven't often replayed TPAB from start to finish in the past year; it feels more like an experience, a jazz album in a sea of quotidian rap releases.
Yet the custom of reviewing an album within a week of its debut remains steadfast. And so we unpack untitled unmastered., an altogether less commercial release than its predecessor, where protracted jazz jams and overlong skits sit alongside chorus-less conscious rap manifestos and Revelations-esque doomsaying. Though TPAB was every inch a carefully constructed patchwork of African American genre elements and politically-minded sentiments, this new release is harder to define. It doesn’t sound like a collection of demos, rather outtakes from the Kunta live shows, with Lamar performing frenetically in front of a jazz collective as they play through extended freeform jams. And as his subject matter has grown ever darker and more introspective, Lamar’s collaborators seem to have grown more comfortable staying in a single lane rather than switching their style up every few minutes, as was the case with TPAB.
The result is a wonderfully raw collection of songs that show Lamar at his lyrical and artistic best, condensed to the (incredibly short for a modern rap album) runtime of 34 minutes. In his interesting review of this release, Anthony Fantano of The Needle Drop noted that by removing the safety net of flashy production techniques that rap musicians usually surround themselves with, Lamar has embraced a more in-the-moment sound. I think it’s fitting for an artist with the jazz pedigree and improvisational ability of Lamar to record in such a way, let alone release this project in a correspondingly spur-of-the-moment fashion. It feels refreshing to hear Lamar in his element, rather than swathed in layers of endlessly-tweaked electronic polish. To what extent the label of ”unmastered” is used to refer to the recorded state of these songs, or for a pointed reference to the many other meanings of that word, is unknown. What is clear is that with this project, Lamar is pointedly rebelling against his reputation as the sort of reclusive perfectionist whose records only come out every few years. If untitled unmastered. is designed to tell us anything, then everything from its blank cover art to its dated track names and seemingly-unplanned release is a clear statement that Lamar can do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and we’re just here to shut up and listen. No arguing there.
So begins Lamar’s freewheeling verse on Untitled 01 | 08.19.2014, as he raps over an uneasy, lurching jazz rhythm. The doomsday sentiment carries into the second track, where Lamar finds himself torn between his Compton background and the pressures of global superstardom. It’s a familiar topic for the young artist, but an effective one. "Where did we go wrong?” he asks in a broken squeak of a voice, caught between worlds and out of place and time. Soon, the slow, pounding electronic beat of untitled 02 is one of the few traces modern hip-hop has left on this release, yet Lamar manages to make it seem traditional, covering the sub-bass with live saxophone and his unhinged crooning. It’s one of many highlights on untitled unmastered., a bait-and-switch erstwhile club banger that sees Lamar journey down a darker road than the one most listeners will expect.
Lamar first played untitled 03 on the Colbert Report in December 2014, and it remains a compelling track here, as we hear Lamar reflect on Asian, white, and black stereotypes, viewing his success through the lens of race before turning his back on the assistance of others and thriving on his perception of himself. A short, pretty interlude track leads into the fifth song, which is a highlight of a particularly excellent calibre. Anna Wise, singer and frequent Lamar collaborator, croons over a fast and frantic drumbeat/bassline backing, as the ever-present traces of saxophone and piano reappear yet again on the woozy and subtly sinister fifth track. "Somebody said you bumped your head and bled the floor/ Jumped into a pit of flames and burned to coal/ Drowned inside the lake outside, away you flow/ And that means the world to me,” Wise sings, coolly detached from the violent realities of the subject matter. Lamar picks up the theme with some of the darkest bars he’s ever spit, taking the point of view of someone else but perhaps vicariously living through a proxy, seeing his darkest fantasies out in lyrical wordplay.
The album’s only two guest rappers also appear on 05, in the form of Lamar's close friends and respective label boss and labelmate Punch and Jay Rock. Cee-Lo Green crops up on the sixth track, a romantic ode produced by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the latter of A Tribe Called Quest. It’s the album’s most laidback track, a necessary reprieve from the intensity of both tracks 5 and 7, but lacking in the deep lyrical substance of Lamar's best work. Tick-tock rhythms, swooning strings, and jazz piano lighten the mood a little after the violent rage of 05 has all but shut the lights off, yet in the following seventh track, Lamar dives right back into the introspection that endeared his music to us when he first came up.
Pitting love, drugs, family, jewellery, street credibility, mateship, and hate against inner respect and strength, Lamar repeatedly calls upon the listener to "levitate” in what is perhaps the finest track of this record. Drunken guitar leads move in and out of tune while a pounding, electronic drumbeat once again pushes aside jazz inclinations for the first movement of the three-part suite. In the second, Swizz Beats’ five year old son Egypt sings a short piece before pressing play on a (great) beat he made himself, over which Lamar unleashes the hardest lines of the entire record.
The third part of 07, a long but mildly entertaining snippet of studio banter during which Lamar shows off a fairly impressive singing voice, leads into the eighth and final track. Here, Lamar experiments with the combination of the most upbeat instrumental he’s ever appeared on and some of the darkest lyrics he’s ever penned. Misleadingly pessimistic, the song finds him ruminating on the financial hardships many African Americans face as he tries to contextualise his own success. The album closes with one last echo of the short call out that strings many of these songs together, as spoken word poetry did on TPAB: "Pimp pimp, hooray!” The chant is darkly presented however, perhaps an ironic celebration of the glamourisation of the pimp archetype in recent black music. It’s fitting for Lamar to twist old expressions to his own ends, adding unsettling overtones to what seems superficially amusing or casual.
And so untitled unmastered. draws to a close, perhaps the first Lamar release that - in layout, form, style, and substance - matches the often freeform style of his music. It’s a timely and fitting release for Lamar because he alone can make this sort of hip-hop sound so compelling and repeatable in 2016. After all, Lamar’s alignment to the jazz music of old is not pretentious posturing, nor any other form of disingenuous style-stealing; this sounds, looks, and feels like a project made by a man who understands the spirit of jazz music intrinsically. As raw and messy as it sometimes feels, untitled unmastered. is entirely cohesive and - in many ways - more repeatable than the bulk of TPAB. It requires less of an investment from listeners, because the lyrical fever-pitch politicism has been dialled back and the focus of the music itself is on slowly-unravelling mood and groove, away from the turbulent beat and style changes of Lamar’s previous releases.
The second major hip-hop release of 2016 shares some striking similarities with the first, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. Not musically, but conceptually; after all, that album felt simultaneously perfected and unfinished, a meta statement that went over everyone’s heads in the short term. untitled unmastered. is like that - in many ways it wouldn’t surprise me if in time this record was considered an equal part of Lamar’s trajectory, following his past three major releases with an equivalent amount of brilliance. It deserves to be seen as such: a fascinating snapshot of a master’s mind, caught between eras of his personal and public lives, artistically inspired, at once invigorated and torn down by life as he suffers the slings and arrows of fame and the pressure of millions. That Lamar has created a body of work at the calibre of what we’ve already heard is remarkable. Whatever he does next, wherever he ventures, the 28 year old leader of the pack will undoubtedly find ways to delight, surprise, and provoke.
We said in our TPAB review that "few rappers working today are capable of making records such as this," and we were wrong; no one else is capable of doing what Kendrick is doing right now. There’s a concept that musicians often refer to known as the pocket - it’s a sense of being on time and on the ball, but it’s also something more, something indefinable... You can keep great time without sitting in the pocket, and you can dance in and out of time in just the right way yet remain in the pocket. An article by All About Jazz perfectly summarised the feeling as: "In music, the pocket isn’t a place where the musician holds something — it’s an intangible place that holds the musician.” In the trajectory of his life, Kendrick Lamar is currently sitting in this pocket in more ways than one. As the spirit of his music holds him, he invites us as listeners to let go as he has, surrendering to the greater groove. Falling into the richly complex sounds Lamar created on untitled unmastered. will be one of the great joys of 2016.
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