The early months of 2016 seem to have ushered a new trend in rap music: unfiltered, unpolished music that eschews political labels in an attempt to strive for bolder and more honest ideals. First, there was “The Life of Pablo,” Kanye West’s messy collage of the various sonic muses who have influenced him over the years. An album that seemed to evolve in real time and still feels unfinished, West added eight new songs to the record after its premiere at Madison Square Garden a day before its release. The next prominent hip-hop release—Kendrick Lamar’s “untitled unmastered”—is a raw and sophisticated record that follows appropriately in the wake of “The Life of Pablo”’s bucking of the conventional wisdom about how to construct a rap record.
“untitled” is a glimpse inside the vault of recordings that Lamar chose not to include on his last studio album, “To Pimp a Butterfly.” None of the eight tracks are given actual names; rather, they are called untitled 01, 02, etc. presumably after the order in which they were conceived. As the title states, the compilation is by definition a loose and expansive affair, but it is marked by the same jazzy live instrumentation and self-reflective, politically aware lyrics that made “TPAB” such a sensation. Even the album’s introduction, a woozily hedonistic purr from the singer Bilal, draws parallels to the great George Clinton’s appearance on “TPAB”’s opener, “Wesley’s Theory.” However, the project is not just a gift of unreleased loosies to hardcore fans, but an album that stands on its own as a significant contribution to Lamar’s already impressive catalogue.
“untitled, unmastered” is deeply steeped in religious and metaphysical imagery. On “untitled 01,” Lamar asks to “get God on the phone” and opens his first verse with a post-apocalyptic vision. “I seen it vividly jogging my brain memory,” he raps. “Life no longer infinity this was the final calling / No birds chirping or flying, no dogs barking / We all nervous and crying, moving in caution.” While freedom movements have embraced Lamar’s music in the past (“Alright” has become the de facto chant for Black Lives Matter protesters), the violence that has continued to erupt from class and racial divisions in the era of Donald Trump has done nothing to soothe Kendrick’s psyche and the dystopian future he imagines. As Kendrick exasperatedly utters on the next track, borrowing from Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer’s famous 1964 speech at the Williams Church in Harlem, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
As Lamar plumbs the depths of social and political discord with each witty analysis of society’s structural imbalances, he sounds neither preachy nor removed from the current fascinations of hip-hop culture. Lamar fiercely defends his mantle on “untitled,” demonstrating that he has not lost the capacity for battle rap that he flexed most famously in his “Control” verse. Firing shots at luminaries who have crossed his path, particularly Drake and Jay Electronica, he offers one final warning call to the latter: “I can put a rapper on life support / Guarantee that’s something that none of y’all want.” What a true rap feud involving Kendrick would look like is anyone’s guess. But while conflict with other rappers has never been an integral element of Kendrick’s music compared to 50 Cent or Drake, it is clear that Lamar is unwilling to risk being caught with his pants down in the wake of Meek Mill’s demise.
Thankfully, the album is not all fire and brimstone. From the sublime pro-education interlude “untitled 04” to “untitled 03”’s self-searching afro-futuristic vision, Lamar’s artistic register remains so impressive because of the range of possibilities he imagines for humanity. More Cornel West than Malcolm X, Lamar’s music is carefully nuanced; he levies criticisms at both capitalist society and black culture itself with an emotional complexity that speaks to what West once called the “nihilism of black America.” “Untitled 03” is the most perfectly distilled example of the complex lens through which Lamar views the world. Interrogating various ethnic groups (the Asian, Indian, black, and white man) for self help, each set offers a different piece of themselves to Lamar that often reveals more about the popular conceptions of each group than Lamar personally. Yet even at his most anguished, Kendrick is a cautious optimist. On the outro to “03” that he performed live on “The Colbert Report” last year, Lamar echoes N.W.A member MC Ren and the ’80s cartoon “Bébé’s Kid” with what is perhaps one of his central theses, “Tell ’em we don’t die we multiply.”
The song Lamar recently performed on Jimmy Fallon, (popularly known as “Blue Faces”), is the final track of “untitled,” and ends the album on an upbeat, but touchingly vulnerable moment. As the debate over Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler’s sensual Vanity Fair photo rages on in the black community, no other contemporary artist offers a more refreshingly humane perspective on black masculinity and identity than Lamar. Even Lamar’s recent unruly and amorphous fashion aesthetic rejects regressive conceptions of what strong black men should look like. His message transcends racial boundaries while sustaining its unmitigated afro-centricity.
On “Blue Faces,” Lamar channels the outrage of black America at systematic injustice by juxtaposing it with his experiences traveling to Cape Town in 2013. Driven by a funky bass line more urgent than most of “untitled”’s ambient production, “Untitled 08” is marked by Kendrick’s refusal to shy away from financial anxiety and the fear of being pulled back into a cycle of poverty. Although it occupies a space in stark opposition to what Kanye once called “that bullsh*t ice rap,” “untitled, unmastered,” and “Blue Faces” in particular, can be equally as uplifting as escapist braggadocio. Whether Kendrick offers sympathy, “two tears in the bucket I cry with you…Like a deer with a headlight / I freeze up when I re-up,” or checks his own privilege in the wake of his formative visit to Cape Town, “your project ain’t sh*t / I live in a hut b*tch,” he receives and provides feedback with an unbridled honesty. It’s this quality that sets “untitled, unmastered” most apart from the aforementioned “Life of Pablo,” despite the fact that both are uniquely unconventional ventures. Kendrick Lamar sits removed from the pomp and circumstance of a Kardashian lifestyle; to rephrase the genre characterization noted by Kanye earlier, the content of Lamar’s music is distinctly “no bullsh*t.”