Kendrick Lamar untitled, unmastered. Top Dawg / Aftermath / Interscope
Jay Z once ruefully eyed hip-hop’s conscious/commercial divide by rapping: “Truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common Sense / But I did five mill and ain’t rapped like Common since.” This conflict continues to dominate the discourse about rap lyricism, but over the last few years, Kendrick Lamar has been proving that you can bridge that divide.
Despite his weird voice, his weirder voices, his oblique lyrics and baroque song-structures, ‘King Kendrick’ has sold millions, won Grammys, and managed to (to paraphrase Buzzfeed, probably) ‘break the internet’ simply by releasing a collection of ‘untitled’ off-cuts from last year’s universally lauded and largely anti-commercial album To Pimp a Butterfly.
With Kendrick, everything is calculated, and untitled, unmastered.’s un-title can be trusted to carry at least a double meaning. On Untitled 3, Kendrick describes the antagonistic process of doing business with the exploitative “white man” – “put a price on my talent, I hit the bank and withdraw”. Now subject to the financial pressures of the mainstream, Kendrick must resist the orders to compromise his art.
But then there’s Kendrick’s true master. Untitled 1, with its Book of Revelations imagery (“planes falling out the sky, trains fallin’ off the track”) finds Kendrick reproachfully addressing the boss upstairs: “I tithed for you, pushed the club to the side for you, who love you like I love you?” There are gnomic hints of Old Testament wrath amidst the cauldron of conflicted feelings Kendrick ventriloquises. Surveying the contemporary rap scene, Kendrick (on Untitled 2) hollers: “I see jiggaboos… I see Styrofoam”. The apocalypse on Untitled 1 has as little mercy for “bad bitches” and “real niggas” as it does for “discriminating the poor”; the rapture won’t have much ‘rap’ in it.
Kendrick, however, is a “conscious” rapper with the restless, self-lacerating consciousness of the God fearing—more suffering parishioner than confident preacher. untitled, unmastered. is all agonised questioning (“Where did it all go wrong?”, “Before I blink do I see me before them pearly gates?”), offering few answers. The dense, jazzy production, though beautifully played and often—indeed—sweet and sunny, is also sonically unresolved. It billows and seethes, with dissonant horn-runs flickering across even its smoother surfaces.
“Look at my flaws,” Kendrick pleads on Untitled 6, and those flaws are in full evidence here—his sometimes sloppy flow, his awkward phrasing, his increasing self-indulgence—so that one might exasperatedly add Unfinished to the album’s un-title. But maybe this is the point of Kendrick’s music? Like his lyrics, like his consciousness (buffeted by the storms of modernity and racial identity), it is a work in progress. And so is our appreciation of it; few rappers demand, and reward, such devotion—even from the most fervently agnostic.