Kendrick Lamar can do anything right now. When he was following up good kid, m.A.A.d. city, he could’ve done the easy prestige-rap things — rapping about struggle over churning Eminem-style beats, getting a Jay Z verse, etc. He could’ve skewed pop or street. He had a forking road on the career roadmap, and he could’ve gone a number of different directions and still stayed on the map. Instead, he ripped the map up and made a shattering, jazz-damaged, expressionist opus about racism and blackness and self-image in America. Any of those other courses could’ve worked, but what he did on that album worked. It was intense and brave and intrepid, and I say that as one of the few who didn’t even love To Pimp A Butterfly as a musical experience. At this point, he can do just about anything, and what he does demands attention. Case in point: The unreleased-rarities album.
If almost anyone else released an album of unreleased songs — songs he might’ve performed once or twice, songs that didn’t make it onto a proper album — the world would collectively shrug. Even if a rapper I love, someone like Jay Z or Future or Scarface — I would probably listen once and move on with my life. I can only think of a few exceptions that would be bigger deals: Drake, André 3000, maybe Kanye. But Kendrick Lamar does it and the world suddenly grinds to a halt. He is in that incredibly rarified space where everything he does feels not just potentially great but also important.
There are reasons for that. When Kendrick did these songs as live televised one-offs on The Colbert Report or The Tonight Show, it was immediately apparent that these songs were special, especially as performed with the ridiculous live bands that Kendrick assembles for those shows. I don’t know if I’ve ever watched a TV performance as many times as I’ve watched those. And even beyond those few songs, Kendrick Lamar is a rapper incapable of cruising. He kills everything. Even when he shows up on a negligible Taylor Swift remix, he raps like the force of his popped plosives are the only things keeping the earth on its axis. My estimation of TPAB has grown a ton since the album came out, but part of my frustration with the album initially was that Kendrick devoted so much of his energy to weird slam-poetry cadences when I just wanted to hear him rap. That’s not a problem on untitled unmastered. He’s rapping here.
The whole genesis story behind untitled unmastered. — a tweet exchange between Top Dawg top dog Top Dawg and the world’s second-best basketball player — is fun to think about, partly because it just underlines how these tracks were always just arrows in Kendrick’s quiver. He records amazing songs so often that he just has piles of them sitting around, and his label boss is able to just throw them together into album form because LeBron James wants to hear them. (I’m guessing the LeBron/Anthony Tiffith Twitter exchange was a planned stunt to build buzz for the album, and I’m not even remotely mad about it. Still, for best-in-the-world symmetry’s sake, I almost wish it had been Steph Curry whose Twitter request willed the album into being.)
But if untitled unmastered. proves that Kendrick is rapping out of control whenever he’s in the mood, it also shows that he’s so deep into his muted, jazz-addled aesthetic that his unreleased songs sound completely cohesive when assembled into album shape. To date, we know precious little about who helped out on the album. We know that Jay Rock and TDE co-president Punch are the album’s only guest rappers, and we know that Anna Wise, SZA, and Cee-Lo are the guest singers. We know that Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammed produced one track and that Swizz Beatz’ five-year-old son produced another. (As I write this, my six-year-old and my three-year-old are disassembling my couch so that they can turn my living room into a “dinosaur zoo.” They are not making beats for great rap songs. I don’t even know how that works. Neither one can even clap on-beat.) And we know that these are demos from the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions, which makes sense both musically and thematically.
On untitled unmastered., Kendrick raps about a lot of things, but he’s mostly rapping about insecurity over his place in the world — wondering what it means that he’s attained this stardom, whether this makes him a force for good in the larger world or whether he’s still just as insignificant in general. On the opening track, he starts out by furiously describing an apocalypse in a couple of exhilarating, breathless-but-detailed verses. And then, with the stakes established, he talks to God, trying to argue his case and plead that he was a force for good: “Say I didn’t try for you, say I didn’t ride for you / I tied for you, I pushed the club to the side for you.” But Kendrick doesn’t even sound convinced himself.
When Kendrick does boast, there’s an extra element to it. He’s not just putting on for himself, though he does allow himself a few moments to delight in doing that. He’s trying to elevate everyone: “Hope it’s evident that I inspired a thousand MCs to do better / I blew cheddar on youth centers, buildings, Beamers and blue leather.” He allows himself a few moments of standard-issue rap snarling — the Drake subliminal, the possibly-Jay Electronica-directed “I could never end a career if it never start.” More often, though, he’s laying out scenarios of desperation: “Once upon a time, I used to go to church and talk to God / Now I’m talking to myself, hollow tips is all I got.” And when he is bragging, it’s often hard to tell whether it’s just bragging or if he’s also quietly making fun of himself: “The flattery of watching my stock rise / The salary, the compensation tripled my cock size.” He’s rapping in a sort of inward way, too — lots of mutters, rarely projecting, half speaking to himself. But he’s really sticking to these beats, riding them even when he’s not getting all lyrically dense.
It’s going to be easy, and maybe irresistible, to compare untitled unmastered. to Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo. They are, after all, two early-2016 albums from two of the three most important rappers on the planet. And yet the untitled unmastered. release — appearing suddenly and fully-formed, in the middle of the night, with very little forewarning — feels works away from the messy, psychologically fraught rollout of Pablo (which, for all we know, is still unfinished). But in a lot of ways, these are two albums concerned with the same things: With God and race and legacy and transcendence. Kendrick and Kanye both want to make music that matters, that elevates. They just have profoundly different ideas about how to get there. And while untitled unmastered. doesn’t give me the sense of overwhelming anxiety that Pablo sometimes does — and while Kendrick never says anything risibly stupid on untitled — Kendrick’s album also doesn’t have any moment as punch-the-air perfect as when the Sister Nancy sample comes in on “Famous.” Untitled is a deep, low-key, contemplative work, and on its own terms, it absolutely works.
Like TPAB, this is all assembled-in-studio live-band music, Kendrick rapping over twitchy drones and flying-into-the-sunset saxophone solos. He stays within a groove, and none of the songs sound like singles, though the internet is already receiving “untitled 07″ as the special song it is. And even if untitled unmastered. doesn’t quite have its own sonic character, it’s still a long way away from being To Pimp A Butterfly’s DVD extras. Even if Kendrick had all the loose pieces sitting around on hard drives for the past couple of years, this is still a powerful album, one that stands on its own. It’s almost scary: Kendrick Lamar is out there, doing great things, even when he’s not always showing them to us. How many other albums like this could he have sitting around? And how many will he eventually give us?