Wednesday, March 9, 2016

album review: 'untitled unmastered.' by kendrick lamar

Let's talk a little bit about performance art, and Kendrick Lamar specifically.

Now I don't think anyone can deny, even if you're not a Kendrick Lamar fan, that he hasn't made a considerable impact in modern hip-hop, and not just on record. Indeed, one thing that has always stood out for me is how strong a live performer he is, bringing the same sort of visceral energy he has on record into some pretty potent songs with impressive stagecraft. To put it another way, very few artists would ever dare to perform a song as visceral as 'The Blacker The Berry' at the Grammys. You could easily make the argument that Kendrick takes his live performances as opportunities to craft unique and incendiary artistic statements outside of just the music, showing a rare gift for theater that I really appreciate.

And nowhere is that more apparent than the 'untitled' series. For those of you who aren't aware, through a series of live shows Kendrick has been slipping in tracks that nobody recognized from any album. They had no name or recorded version, the only time you could hear them was if you found a live video - in other words, the definition of modern performance art. And while I doubted they were free-form pieces that Kendrick was coming up with off the top of his head mid-performance, they were very much unique in their presentation, to the point where it might have been inevitable for them to be bundled and sold eventually, I almost didn't want it. There's something intangible in the live spontaneity of the performance that felt truly special, and to put it on wax... well, would the energy be the same, would they have the same magic?

Well, now it's time to test that theory, because out of nowhere Kendrick released a surprise record called untitled unmastered containing eight of these mysterious unnamed tracks, and because it's Kendrick Lamar, everyone online lost their minds. To me, I had significantly lower expectations - not just that these might not capture the spark of performance, but might just end up being a collection of glorified b-sides not good enough to land on To Pimp A Butterfly or good kid, MAAD city. Was I right?

Okay, here's the thing: almost by design, this album sets itself up to hedge expectations - hell, it's indicative in the title. It wasn't set up to be as elaborate or cohesive as To Pimp A Butterfly - it's looser, rougher around the edges, with the sort of track fragments that in the hands of a lesser rapper would feel like leftovers. And yes, on some level, they still are, but points must be given to Kendrick for being able to create something not just workable, but genuinely thought-provoking with this project, if only in fragments. I wouldn't put this up with any of his best projects, but it certainly is good, maybe even great, easily outstripping what many rappers could do with their best efforts.

So I could start with Kendrick himself... but really, what is there to say about him at this point? Excellent multi-syllabic flows and bars that he can change up without warning, a really expressive delivery that can bring both fire and smoothness when necessary - again, these are leftovers that still have more memorable lines and concepts than most entire albums, the sort of lyrical hip-hop I've always loved. All of that said, you can also tell that outside of certain moments on 'Untitled 1' and '5', Kendrick isn't nearly as visceral as he could be. And look, I get why he was hopping on Drake's flows on 'Untitled 2' and part of '7' - he's making one of many points on how he can do this same sort of thing and do it better while satirizing much of the hollow bragging that has coloured that material in recent years - and while I appreciate that it's here instead of on a record, I'm not exactly wild when Drake uses those flows either! Now to his credit, Kendrick's complicated lyricism often plays as well if not better on tracks with a bit more of a jazzy feel - one of the reasons I really dug 'Untitled 5' and '6' - and he knows enough to bring on guest stars who can compliment him, with Jay Rock and Punch setting up great parallels on the former and Cee-Lo Green of all people bringing some great, low-key soul to the latter. On the flip side, while I liked hearing SZA on 'Untitled 4', I do wish that track had been fleshed out a little more beyond the punchline we later hear Kendrick create on the lo-fi final third of 'Untitled 7', and Jay Rock's singing on that song... yeah, there's a reason I probably liked 'Untitled 4' the least.

Granted, some of that comes into the instrumentation and production... and you know, only Kendrick would release a record that simultaneously has some great, fascinating production choices and yet leave them intentionally unpolished enough to highlight the looseness of the project. Because many of these tracks do feel skeletal, lacking that added lushness or orchestration to really send them over the top for me, but Kendrick and his producers do a lot regardless. I loved how well the ominous slow build of 'Untitled 1' grew out of a slow, bassy R&B jam with live drums to the watery warping behind Kendrick's bars to the wiry synth layers of 'Untitled 3' to the jazzy horns and piano playing off the rich bass on 'Untitled 5'. It almost felt like free jazz on that song with the prominent cymbals and fragmented melody, but it worked, especially when followed by the much established groove on 'Untitled 6' with the muted keys swelling the brisk percussion and strings. Hell, even the liquid funk of 'untitled 8' clicked for me, even if I do feel it could have used another change-up to really connect. But on the flip-side, we also get the darker, harsher tracks, like the fluttering sax against the eerie keys on the bass-heavy 'Untitled 2' or the contorting synth on 'Untitled 7' that breaks into a great rattling melody against the scratchy drums before dissolving into lo-fi acoustics - I might not like the grooves on these tracks as much as the jazzier side, but they still work. The one instrumental I didn't like was 'Untitled 4', which might have some muted Spanish guitar ebbing in and out against a primarily a capella track, but the shrill key progression against the filters piled on Jay Rock's voice just did not connect, at least for me.

But really, it's a Kendrick Lamar record, we're here for lyrics and themes, and let me say right out of the gate that in comparison to more cohesive projects, we only get snippets of what might pass for an arc on this record - and even with that, 'untitled 8' leaves that progression feeling distinctly unfinished, with good ideas that refocus on the themes but lacking that moment to really nail the finale. But what is Kendrick trying to say here? Well, much of this isn't far outside his wheelhouse - holding a leadership position in the increasingly turbulent world of hip-hop, trying to keep away from his own darker instincts and the increasing allure of wealth, and more than before his increasingly complicated relationship with God. That particular element starts very early on the first track, which cribs generously from the book of Revelation, but the underlying anxiety becomes apparent, how Kendrick tries to dedicate his life and art and yet is cast into doubt whether it's all worth in when another artist could debase himself for years and yet with forgiveness still get into Heaven. It feels capricious and unfair to him, and from there the record expands into defining what Kendrick truly wants. He sees the increasingly wealth and flossing from him and his crew on 'untitled 2' and yet even as he thinks about switching it up to embrace it - using Drake's flows in order to drive the parallel home all the more - and yet in the final lines it's revealed as cheap and hollow, he knows he's better than this. But Kendrick questions even that - what I've always loved about Kendrick isn't just his framing that's not afraid to show the very flawed humanity, but to then show the consequences of those actions. This manifests best on 'Untitled 5', where his rage and grief at a corrupt system has him drive up on a representative of said system... but at the sight of his child, he speeds away. It sets up a great parallel with Punch's and Jay Rock's verses, as they all question morality in the face of depression and death, with Punch making it plain that it's their own hubris that needs to be punctured to see through that mirage of fear that holds them back from being better.

And this is where this album gets into fascinating territory, because Kendrick's overall goal of enlightenment is multi-faceted, tied into the 'hiiipower' ideology he never references directly but underscores the arc of this record. It ties into the double entendre that runs through a few songs with 'Head is the answer' in balancing passion with the mind and self-respect - and even despite his faith, it's never explicitly linked to God, which Kendrick questions more here than ever before as that 'easy way out'. And while he can sympathize on tracks like 'untitled 8' for a girl who doesn't see the same success while struggling through school when selling herself out would lead to a bigger reward, he counsels her to hold steady... only for her to flip the question back at Kendrick and question how his fast money in the rap game is any different than hers, when she needs it to survive - and then the bigger picture snaps into place and you realize that while Kendrick has been speaking to the black community, he's also talking to hip-hop as a whole in one of my favourite lines on the album: 'In today's day and age we practice the self-pity of taking the easy way out'. It's the big reason why Kendrick uses Drake's flows to paint him as the foil on 'untitled 2' and '7', the guy who did sell out for greater success, and while the message to rise above and be better can be excruciating - especially in a system set against it - Kendrick's never frames himself as being above it, because on the moral level, it is very much equivalent.

Now can this message be seen as a little broadly sketched or even preachy? In the former case, a bit - especially on the caricatured minorities on 'Untitled 3' or the mostly inessential 'Untitled 4' - but given how Kendrick frames the album, he places himself under the same standard - and not only that, he shows how he's just as human and susceptible to failing, not as much judgement but empathy. And the fact that he was able to mine out that much thematic cohesion and power from a collection of leftovers is kind of incredible in its own right. Now I'm not going to say untitled unmastered is on the level of his best work - again, it's not, and it doesn't have the killer standouts to really push it over the top for me - but it is still great regardless, netting a very light 8/10 and definitely a recommendation. But really, if you're looking for some of the more insightful and thought-provoking hip-hop in the industry, you already knew that.

No comments:

Post a Comment