Music

Kendrick Lamar’s ‘untitled unmastered’ is 34 minutes of uncompromising genius

It feels like Kendrick can do no wrong. Rappers drop mixtapes on DatPiff every day, and they’re ignored. Meanwhile, Kendrick releases untitled unmastered. with as little fanfare as possible, and LeBron James gets involved. But Kendrick’s not a celebrity; he’s not a politician, not a cultural critic, not exactly a role model. He’s a modern folk hero, argues RICHARD S HE.

untitled unmastered. is not the highly anticipated follow-up to To Pimp a Butterfly. Like Rihanna’s ANTI, it’s a deliberate non-masterpiece, a palate cleanser that lowers our impossible expectations for whatever comes next. Unlike Kendrick’s painstakingly assembled concept albums, you get the sense that these might be eight random picks out of dozens of leftovers recorded over the last three years.

untitled unmastered. channels decades of loosely recorded black music: street mixtapes of rap verses without choruses; jazz ensembles jamming just to fill two sides of vinyl; even Gil Scott-Heron-style spoken word. Part of what’s liberating about hip-hop is freedom from strict melodies, from the verse-chorus structures of pop. Here, there are even fewer sounds that resemble a conventional rap beat than on To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s like they’re built from deconstructed parts of other songs; retro and futuristic, organic and synthetic all at once.

Each track is a short story unto itself. That’s the real reason they don’t belong on To Pimp a Butterfly or its followup – they deserve to be heard on their own terms. Kendrick’s performed versions of them before – on Colbert, Fallon, and most recently the Grammys. But these studio versions, recorded earlier, lack their sense of triumph. There’s no context, no album art, not even song titles to give us any clues.

There’s no context, no album art, not even song titles to give us any clues

untitled’s 34 minutes are so crammed with ideas that they almost need to be read like poetry, with annotations, to be fully appreciated. Only three and a half years after good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick’s utterly confident he’ll be understood no matter how weird he gets. It’s the opposite of Kanye, who publicly obsesses over every aspect of his art, but gets wildly misinterpreted anyway.

All hip-hop, even the ignorant shit, is existential. Whether you’re Jay Z or Too $hort, it takes years of struggle, writing amateur rhymes, to achieve the kind of confidence people can actually believe in. The music you usually hear is the end result. But Kendrick’s our most self-critical rapper, and on untitled, he lays his thought process bare. These songs feel unsure. They’re caught between poles – the sacred and profane, social commentary and surrealism, critiquing black culture while revelling in black art.

On ‘untitled 01 l 08.19.2014.’ Kendrick channels the Book of Revelation. He foresees the coming apocalypse, swallowing all our petty human conflicts and hedonism. But he’s not some preacher condemning sinners to hell; in fact, he doesn’t know if he has a place in heaven. It’s as much religion as science fiction. Kendrick looks into the future to warn us to live better in the present.

“Kendrick’s an inspirational figure, but his music offers no false answers”

‘untitled 08 l 09.06.2014.’ indicts the cycle of crime and poverty in his native Compton. When money is a constant issue, long-term plans like college are hard. So people go for shortcuts – prostitution, pushing drugs. But new money doesn’t solve your other life problems, nor does it dismantle the racist society that created those living conditions in the first place.

What Kendrick’s saying comes dangerously close to respectability politics, a la Bill Cosby’s notorious ‘Pound Cake‘ speech, but Kendrick raps with empathy, not derision. And in the song’s third verse, he indicts his own privilege – not just as a rich, successful rapper, but as an American in a relatively prosperous Western country. Several times on the album, and at the very end, Kendrick gives an ironic “pimp pimp, hooray!” To Pimp a Butterfly went platinum. Is that something to celebrate?

True optimism isn’t naïve. It’s looking at injustice and human nature, and instead of giving up, deciding that we will, we must be alright. That’s why ‘Alright’ has become a mantra for Black Lives Matter. In a world where there are no easy solutions, Kendrick fights to stay idealistic. He’s an inspirational figure, but his music offers no false answers.

It’s wrong to say Kendrick transcends rap. That’s something detractors say to denigrate and stereotype hip-hop. Whether it’s high or lowbrow, hip-hop is art. Kendrick comes from rap; he proudly reps Compton. He’s equally influenced by Tupac and Lil Wayne, N.W.A and Miles Davis. As Public Enemy’s Chuck D once said, “Rap is black America’s CNN“. Kendrick’s words are a little less straightforward, more abstract, but his concerns are ultimately the same.

If there’s one artist Kendrick reminds me of – and Pharrell made this comparison years ago – it’s Bob Dylan. Dylan went from ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’, where he spoke for the people, to incorporating the surrealism of beat poetry into something far stranger. But he didn’t lose sight of his message, and neither did his fans.

People love to complain about pop music, but Kendrick Lamar exists in that world. Lest we forget, Taylor Swift got him his first #1 single via ‘Bad Blood‘ and he got a genuine standing ovation at the fucking Grammys, of all places. The greatest artists don’t dumb themselves down. They break down barriers. They elevate the culture around them through sheer force of will.

9/10 stars

Richard S. He is an award-winning pop culture critic. People still don’t take him seriously. Follow his tweets about Smash Mouth’s ‘All Star’ at @Richaod.