untitled, unmastered – Kendrick Lamar

After hearing Jay Rock’s ode to LA on 90059, or the funk-soul leanings more recently on Anderson Paak’s Malibu, it seems not only was Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly steeped in afro-centric empowerment, but it was one of those landscape-shifting albums that inspires a new era.  You don’t need to look further than the Donald Trump rally a fortnight ago where protesters chanted ‘Alright’ for proof that Lamar’s lyrics have seeped into culture.

And with such a profound impact, it’s hardly surprising that a B-sides album from K.Dot will leave people scrambling for headphones on a Friday afternoon in the office. untitled, unmastered is not only spontaneous, but it feels like a backdoor into TDE studios where you glance over to a bunch of demos on Kendrick’s laptop. And through a somewhat haphazard construction, it provides an anatomical insight into Kendrick’s creative process, with songs like ‘07’ comprising of three demo’s stitched together. The third of these is a jam session of early scratchings that would eventually become ‘04’. Kendrick cracks up over a chunky bassline, as he sings “head is the answer, head is the future”. He turns to the band in the closing stages of ‘02’ and asks ‘who’s on the drums’ – before appointing someone to ‘Mortal Man’ and ‘King Kunta’. This project we see him transcend past from just the frontman, to assume his spot as conductor of the whole show.

He comes through lurching and heaving with the same kind of angst on ‘01’ that inspired Butterfly- creating subtle dissonance over a double-bass backing to immediately get under your skin. The track is a dialogue between Kendrick and God- which these days has become a hackneyed feature of rap music (ie. every Kanye song ever). As it unfolds though, it seems while Kendrick’s world remains faith-centric, he seems to have a fractured relationship with God- and verses on ‘04’ are needed to exorcise some of those doubts.

Pimp, pimp! Hooray! Appears on various tracks across untitled, in what appears to be a roundtable clinking of glasses to what Butterfly has amounted to, as well as being a signature thread of all Kendrick projects. It can be akin as a lighter equivalent to the spoken I remember you was conflicted poem at the end of each track of Butterfly. The celebration must also extend to all the other accolades he has received in the last twelve months- getting the keys to Compton and sweeping five Grammy’s from eleven nominations.

Despite the tense flicking between album and post album sessions, a creative restlessness translates across much of the album. He is creating for the sake of creating, unwilling to stand still, not only to fully capitalise before the window closes, but to put the stake down that somehow, he is scarily getting better. Chopping and changing his flow from frenetic, to inebriated, to silky and solemn- but all the while in total control.

The news gets even better for those lucky enough to see Kendrick TONIGHT at Rod Laver in Melbourne, or Sydney or Blues Fest over the weekend on his world tour, bringing special guest jazz extraordinaire Kamasai Washington and his latest shoulder popping creations to life.

 

8.8/10

Album Review: Drake & Future – What A Time To Be Alive

Despite being hinted at, the immediacy of this project has  caught pundits off guard
Despite being hinted at, the immediacy of this project has caught pundits off guard

Rolling into 2015, Drake was one of hip-hop’s key gatekeepers, but he found a way to push himself further into an upper echelon with If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late– one of the best releases of the year. Since then Drake has teased singles off his next major project Views From The 6, which has waned as a certainty to be released this year.

Enter Future. As his name suggests he’s an up and comer, being one of the most hyped rappers this year on the back of solid mixtape releases and his debut album DS2. Whilst he employed the skills of Drake on that project, his hand in this collaboration comes with much more of an apparent need for exposure than Drake needs. It lends to this mixtape forming as a master and the apprentice dynamic, which ultimately undersells Drake. Nonetheless, the fact that this ‘super-collab’ has materialised has drawn curiosity the world over.

This is one the highest profile extended collaborations since 2011’s Watch The Throne, between Kanye and Jay Z, which was hailed a massive success as there was appeal for fanbases of both rappers. While the fanbases of Future and Drake aren’t mutually exclusive it’s hard to for Drake fans to get a picture of where this stands in his illustrious catalogue. A curious signpost for this album is that the artwork has a very similar design to Watch The Throne, but is silver not gold?

The fact that the whole project was conjured in a 6 day writing burst lends itself either way if you like the album or not. At it’s best there is a raw spontaneity and great chemistry but it also sounds hurried and unpolished at other times.

It doesn’t bode as being a fruitful project on the opening track Digital Dash as Drake only appears after three minutes, the floor being wholly given to Future as he delivers easily the worst beat on the album. But after a weak opener they start to ramp things up.

Whilst it’s not my favourite beat, Big Rings goes hard and has the right qualities to make it as a club hit. After this album headline, they both cruise in third gear for the next handful of tracks before Drizzy wakes you the fuck up with a monster verse on I’m The Plug. Scholarships is one of these more mellow moments and Future not hustling relentlessly is far more tolerable. The hypnotic trance the production leaves you in is the most memorable moment on this project.

Drake productions have a distinctive simplicity and efficiency, because his team know how to do more with less. But with the exception of Scholarships and 30 for 30 Freestyle, those looking for the same kind of production on IFRTITL will find this album lacking.  

What Future is trying to do on this record is clear, but his execution is less than convincing. He is much better suited to the role of hype MC, as he spits a couple of lax lines and repeats them into oblivion. He disguises the fact he’s just repeating himself by making his lines barely decipherable. Drake’s own hooks aren’t as tight as his past work as shown on Change Locations he rolls through the track looping “Me and my friends, we got money to spend” . C’mon Drizzy, you can do better than that. He makes constant references to the quantity of tracks he is pumping out, but one has to wonder when the quality starts to wane. It closes out with both artists doing their own respective solo track which kind of underlines the collaboration as a pointless exercise.

It’s hard to ignore that What a Time To Be Alive feels like a Future album featuring Drake, which you can understand given he is the younger counterpart, but the burning question remains: where’s that album at Drizzy?

6/10

Album Review: Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly

Few people doubt that 2015 belongs to Kendrick Lamar

Engrave this into stone. Kendrick Lamar’s third album To Pimp A Butterfly is one of the great hip-hop albums. He has risen from the anticipation and pressure heaped on him since his 2012 sophomore good kid M.A.A.D city, with a resolute focus and strict mandate to deliver something equally essential. Butterfly is dark and twisted, far from a joyous occasion, as he channels a convoluted frustration with fame, family, government, and prejudice into sixteen tracks.

Lamar is at his purest – often self deprecating and brutally honest – on Butterfly. There are no corners or shadows for him to hide in, shedding light on his creative and ingenious flare. There is an undercurrent of underwater 70s funk throughout, with splats of jazz, soul and rock fusioned into a jam that Kendrick can rock to. He owes much of this production to Thundercat and Flying Lotus for fashioning this feel. It picks up where Mark Ronson left off with Uptown Special, with less glitter (and less Bruno Mars).

Whilst he does spawn subplots, black oppression drives Kendrick’s purpose on this album. He uses the power of different mediums; rap, poem, interview, and the speech he gives on ‘i’ saturate the listener with his intention.  He articulates his frustration with a world where black men are institutionalised, victims of their microcosm and unable to expand their horizons.

“I remember you was conflicted” is the opening line of the poem that recurs throughout the album, each time Kendrick adding a line, before reciting the whole piece on ‘Mortal Man’. His message is distilled down to respect being imperative, within oneself and others, in order to effect change. He then elaborates on these concepts with a fictionalised interview with Tupac, using clips lifted from interviews dating back to 1994. Lamar seems giddy to be in the presence of his idol; able to live out some kind of teenage fantasy. Rather than trying to inspire revolt, he tries to spread peace and positive reinforcement.

He shakes off that unwanted commercial collar he has attracted with sections that make listeners squirm, including a crying drunken rap he delivers on the second half of ‘u’, as well as the sex noises on the intro to ‘These Walls’. There are no glossy turn-up tracks equivalent to  ‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’ on Butterfly. Last September’s single ‘i’, was torn down by some K.Dot supporters for being too cheerful and commercial, so he promptly dismantled and redelivered it to a mock live audience on Butterfly. Throughout the whole ‘performance’ he calls out: “mic get turned up”, and pleads with his audience to “get to the front”, as he gets drowned out by crowd noise, representing how he felt when the rap world shunned it on release.

Picking out an album highlight is difficult; they shift on a daily basis, which is testament to the strength of Butterfly. I’ll lock in ‘These Walls’ as my pick. The West Coast beat sees Kendrick in his element, sliding into his verses a beat earlier than anticipated. The tension and angst in his voice relaxes giving way to an easy, deft flow, well complemented by sweetened guitar licks. Don’t be fooled by ‘For Free?’, being labelled as an interlude. It provides comic relief with  Kendrick launching a blistering assault over jazz spasms – proving he could keep up with Busta Rhymes; all in 2 minutes, 11 seconds.
Butterfly is the album Kendrick needed to write. He snatches back the reigns of hip-hop from his peers, offers the social commentary he was urged to vocalise, and packages it in a narrative as compelling as his first two offerings.

9.6/10

Originally posted for Grok Magazine

Album Review: The Internet – Ego Death

The Internet

Whilst the Odd Future label lives strong, the group’s members have dispersed over the last four years, with Tyler, The Creator putting the nail in the coffin earlier this year. One of the spawns of these new directions from vocalist Syd tha Kyd and producer Matt Martians, with their West Coast neo-soul project The Internet, whose critical acclaim appeared to be based off Odd Future nepotism rather than their musical substance. But with the arrival of their third studio album Ego Death, the West Coast unleash a beast that is as sparkling as it is spooky. It sees a vast improvement on their previous work, with the evolution and maturing of the group a key narrative of the album.

Syd’s lyrics are heavily reliant on one reference point- the attention of a girl. Her vocals flicker between sweet and flat as often as her emotions do, traversing her way through yearning, envy and jealousy. At her most poignant, Syd hooks the listener into her world with a candid conversational tone. She does this best on Ego Death’s main drawcard, the Kaytranda-assisted centrepiece, ‘Girl’. A thick bassline rolls through a track as sparse as any on the record, cosmic keys slung throughout and Syd reserves the best vocal hooks that appear on the album and compacts them into this track.

A tendency to leave tracks sparse can be dangerous, because it leaves poor instrumentation out to dry. In their past work they jammed tracks with jarring percussion, blocking the imperfection in the other layers of the music. But for the most part on this album, the percussion takes a backseat with a minimalistic kick/snare and the space instead is taken up by winding (and at times thumping) bass-lines. The jazz keys and bluesy guitar licks also offer plenty for the listener. Short tracks like ‘Get Away’ and ‘Special Affair’ capture the listener’s attention immediately and hold it throughout, whereas longer tracks like ‘Penthouse Cloud’ and ‘Just Sayin/ I Tried’ churn a groove to the end of its tether before laying down a smooth beat change.

This record is the moment they cross the line from abstract hip-hop to a full-fledged neo-soul records that croons its way into your head. There’s only room for rapping features from Vic Mensa and Tyler, the Creator, who offer smart and innovative verses. ‘Palace/Curses’, the track that Tyler features on feels like a cut straight off his album Cherry Bomb which kind of feels out of place on this album.

It might not be an album that shatters any ground, but Ego Death polishes The Internet’s concepts into a decent record informed by a plethora of genres and funneled into a palatable neo-soul fusion.
7/10

Originally posted on Speaker TV – July 27th 2015