by Jon Hunt
Kendrick Lamar, Untitled/Unmastered
…and just a year after the genre-destroying To Pimp A Butterfly, and arriving just as it feels like the entire world is collapsing down around us, here is Untitled/Unmastered, an album that, like Pimp, deserves wholeheartedly every awestruck accolade pointed at it. By now, reactions to Kendrick Lamar’s albums are roughly like the hyperbolic reactions to Radiohead albums a decade-and-a-half ago — nervous, awe-struck listens to, basically, the future, at least a kind of weird cul-de-sac future where everything folds into everything else, and then the subsequent freaking-out-over which always feels over the top, like, really? but then seems almost muted (honest) once you’ve spent quality time with the thing. And sure, the argument, which never doesn’t go through my head: do I just like this because I’m a white(ish) dude and here’s something that doesn’t sound like the trap stuff which is probably the pointer to the (an?) actual future (the actual Future!)? But, you know, yeah, there’s more than one thing happening concurrently and this is for sure one of them, and possibly the most important (but it’s not for me to say, yo!) and it’s not so much that it’s more palatable for white ears than trap soul, but that it’s kind of objectively beautiful. Like sonically, mind-blowingly gorgeous and lush and almost decadent in a way that reminds you that Kendrick is, if anything, a jazz guy, his vocal pronouncements as much a part of the ch-chang bang-boom syncopation as on any Miles record, if that makes sense; freeform and wildly syncopated and organic and wildly unfolding in a way that, honestly, nobody else is doing, at least not like this. And that’s not just “more palatable” so much as it’s just kind of elevating in general, spiritually; smooth and beautiful and challenging and staggering not just as a rap album but as a musical album (not that one’s better than the other, but you know what I mean — it’s not just what’s being said but what’s going on behind it in equal measure). And it’s a collaboration, too, like fully a jazz cosmic consciousness thang with some insane collaborators; basically the best musicians currently happening — you’ve heard me write about a bunch of ’em before, like Adrian Younge or Robert Glasper (one of the east coast jazz greats, part of the equivalent New York scene to Kamasi’s LA-based West Coast Get Down), or Tribe’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad, or Bilal, or Thundercat, or Ab-Soul, or Cee-Lo and Terrace Martin, and those are just the ones we know (if I don’t hear some of the Get Down on rhythm section, I’ll eat a hat, and if there isn’t a little FlyLo here and there, the same). So it’s that, a kind of crazy, smooth, super-black jazz stew of awesome, but it’s also some great songs (with no damn titles!) that if you’re just looking for some, you know, car listening or whatever to pump, there’s that (“untitled 03” has the same wild groove and backing vocals as “King Kunta” did, while “untitled 08” sounds to these ears like an old-school 90s Dre summer jam) and if you’re looking for some, dunno, green-stuff head listens, there’s plenty of that too, like the smooth traveling grooves of “untitled 05” or the sweet, soulful “untitled 06” with its near-perfect Cee-Lo hook (mmm!). And of course what he’s saying is as important as what’s happening behind him (or with him, you know — it’s all connected) — Kendrick as a poet has a lotta insightful shit to say, but it’s also very much about the delicious sound of the words in a way that nobody’s done since (very briefly) Slim Shady when he was good (he’s so not). So you listen to a song like “untitled 06” which is very much a song about love and relationships and also is about internal rhymes and the way he rolls phrases like “my mamma told me I was different the moment i was invented its strange no i’m not ashamed” around in his mouth, which is awesome, or how “untitled 03” plays with racial politics and stereotypes within the music industry but is just as much about the consonants banging up against each other, yeah? And then there’s the narrative that these are all basically demos, which is nuts — they’re lusher, wilder and more formed than most rappers’ finished recordings (hell, than most ten-piece band’s finished recordings). Exception: the last bit of “untitled 07” which is just Kendrick caught on someone’s phone (probably) singing pretty damn soulfully over a repetitive guitar figure, explaining a track that doesn’t, you know, exist yet but now does, just in the form of this demo. S’cool. And the whole thing is just as cohesive sonically as Pimp was, even though I’ll bet these demos and leftovers feature different people and producers on every single track — meaning yeah, one man’s genius holding this shit together even with all the collabs and don’t you forget it, man, because it’s that man’s vision that drives every second on this album and you can tell. And I mean, the whole notion of “does Kendrick’s alterna-rap matter or does it just matter to white people and music critics” is irrelevant because this is a work of god-damn art, folks. Who the hell cares who likes it or who it appeals to or who what when why where when you have something that strikes you full in the gut like this, just pure zero-genre brilliance (jazzfunkrapsoultrapsouleverythingboombipwow, you know? When does that happen?). Too much handwringing and not enough god-damn listening — get thee to a Sonic Music-Dispensary Device pronto and suck this thing down as quickly as you can and then go back and linnnnnnnger on it for a couple weeks and tell me if you don’t think: album of the fucking year, already, and it’s only March? Because what can beat it? And who?