The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


Kendrick Lamar
Untitled Unmastered Gary Suarez , March 10th, 2016 13:48

The most boring conversation in hip-hop right now is the album versus mixtape debate. Improved digital distribution and shifts in consumer behaviour over the past several years transformed mixtapes from what was often an uneven though often effective promotional tool into the primary source for rap music. Drake, Future, and Young Thug have done their fair share to complicate matters by further blurring the obsolete definition of what counts as an album with their 2015 and 2016 full-length projects. So it was only a matter of time before Kendrick Lamar arrived on the scene to needlessly stir this pot of semantic gruel further.

Last year's To Pimp A Butterfly rightfully cemented the West Coast rapper's place as a 21st century album artist. A cohesive and thematically engaging endeavour, the project challenged hip hop's prevailing singles culture at a time when the sales outlook for rap albums looked its bleakest. Furthermore, the press acclaim for To Pimp A Butterfly was near universal, albeit reflecting one's own experiences in the details. White critics marvelled at its blackness; black critics respected its realism. Yet all could agree on one thing in these tumultuous times: it was an album.

Upon its surprise release late last week, Untitled Unmastered got that drab format discussion going again. With eight tracks clocking in around thirty-four minutes, Lamar's latest has been described as both EP for length, and compilation for content. Some might've concluded that he previously proved himself to be an album artist, therefore Untitled Unmastered must be an album. These are the tiresome worries of tedious people, but it inadvertently raises the related issue of how we talk about Kendrick Lamar.

Any notion that Lamar is somehow above rap remains problematic naïveté at best and thinly veiled racism at worst. Yet the exceptionalism surrounding our collective discussion of him and his work deserves a good prodding. The closest we've come thus far was critic Justin Charity's hackles-raising essay for Complex, in which he questioned the legitimacy of the overwhelmingly positive reviews for To Pimp A Butterfly. The pointed piece prompted a promising bit of debate online, but as can be expected it devolved into predictable factionalism 140 characters at a time. Heels were dug in, despite the reasonable opportunity for self-assessment in the face of some rather well-argued devil's advocacy.

The truth is that people project on Lamar whatever they want him to be. For many, his music provides a corrective to what they see as the vapid vulgarity of trap, a belief that persists despite his repeated references to women as "bitches". His willingness and aptitude for talking seriously and relatably about the black American experience, Lamar is forgiven for unvarnished lyrics we'd scoff at were they delivered by Lupe Fiasco, or that we'd tolerate from Talib Kweli.

He can easily do what Drake does in the braggadocio department. But instead of blowback charges of ego or vanity like Aubrey might receive, Lamar is often excused on the grounds of artistry and gravity. On 'Untitled 02', he doles out effusive praise for himself and his squad, particularly Top Dawg CEO Anthony Tiffith. There are romantic parallels to draw between this and the way Dre and Snoop used to rap about Death Row, and Lamar's lyrics all but beg for critics to make them. And lo and behold, one just did.

In the service of the dubious rap saviour narrative, rap elites will likely overlook Untitled Unmastered's sleazy opening skit. While still not as gross as any of J. Cole's boorish boudoir bars of late, it is but the latest example of Lamar's emotionally stunted sexuality, one that hasn't been so prominently displayed since he dreamed aloud of a skyscraping schlong on 'Backseat Freestyle'.

Unlike that adorably absurd power fantasy, the guttural come ons of 'Untitled 01' are grounded in reality. Still, how seriously are we expected to take them, or for that matter any of Untitled Unmastered? Opening a surprise album of apparent studio outtakes with a dirty joke threatens to undermine the ambitious political poetics that follow on that very same track. Lamar pivots from committing sin to casting judgment, by way of an apocalyptic sermon delivered in the spirit of Gil Scott Heron and Johnny Cash.

In truth, these on-record dichotomies are nothing new to Compton's chosen one, which has made him a vexing figure to anyone not entirely convinced of his brilliance. They were present at least as far back as Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. Still, to the many rap conservatives pinning their hopes on Lamar, the very presence of jazz on To Pimp A Butterfly stood as shorthand for seriousness, as if some truly ugly bars in rap history weren't spat by over a slick groove.

As with To Pimp A Butterfly, Untitled Unmastered straddles the personal and political to make some salient points and advances. First premiered on Stephen Colbert's old show, 'Untitled 3' presents hard knocks, mixed metaphors and stereotypes over a squirmy beat cribbed from the A Tribe Called Quest collection. Ali Shaheed Muhammad himself shows up as co-producer for 'Untitled 6', a lounge act with Lamar The Abstract and Cee-Lo Green that feels creepy when you know the latter's rape apologist stances and related felony conviction.

The genre play of To Pimp A Butterfly returns as well. That 'King Kunta' funk makes a grand return on 'Untitled 8', another track originally debuted on a late-night talk show. Here, he deals with subjects like fame and debt far better than Kanye did on The Life Of Pablo. A jam session with the jazz band, 'Untitled 5' lyrically riffs off metaphorical ideas of justice, socially and murderously.

A perfectly fine release, Untitled Unmastered doesn't exist to change anyone's mind about Lamar. That ship has sailed, and for the foreseeable future the narrative course is a righteous one. But the vessel has cracks, as it always has, and if we continue to rely on the immensely talented and imperfectly mortal Lamar in the ways we've been relying on him, we're likely to end up dashed on the rocks.