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: 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