The men behind the music
by Pax Hyde
untitled unmastered. Kendrick Lamar. 2016, Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope.
Kendrick Lamar has made a habit of ignoring expectations, this time by releasing a new album only weeks after the coronation of his 2015 knockout “To Pimp A Butterfly” (TPAB) at the 2016 Grammy Awards. “untitled unmastered” is an untailored compilation of extras written during the production of “TPAB.” Ambiguous titling and a cover resembling a swatch of drab green carpet give listeners the impression that the music is played in a void, a departure from Lamar’s characteristic storytelling format. On individual track-level, however, it is clear he has not abandoned his perfectionism. Though “untitled” is nothing markedly new from Lamar, who can fault that?
“untitled” seems intended in part to be an addendum to “TPAB,” with several newly-released tracks obviously complementing their predecessors. “untitled 08” is a clear nod to the hit single “i” both musically and conceptually, with backup singers and a comparably infectious rhythm giving it an upbeat optimism to frame another celebratory account of Lamar’s success. Similarly, “untitled 02” seems to fit as an evolution from Lamar’s perspective on “Wesley’s Theory,” even though it is dated way back in June of 2014. He then criticizes the music entertainment industry for adopting and exploiting black artists (and still doing so) on “03” and laments the dissonance between his life as a star and the one he left behind in Compton. Both “02” and “Wesley’s Theory” have a heady sound that is unique to Lamar’s imagination—bass lines rumble through the heart while synths pitch and drone as though mimicking his dexterous drawl. The familiarity of the style on “untitled” is reassuring, but this year has brought a lot of progress for Lamar so, as listeners, we also hope that his style continues to evolve and blossom.
Lamar’s talent and unparalleled creativity sometimes distracts from the vital lyrical content of his music. On “untitled 05,” an unhurried bass line and the shush of a cymbal underneath buttery vocals indulge us while Lamar describes the psychological effects of institutionalized racism. As Lamar becomes an embedded star rapper, the weighty message that is usually carried through a whole album will be diluted when fair-weather fans only listen to the hits or do not think to listen for his poetry. “untitled 07” is a three-part song that is a story in itself, documenting a rush, a moment of contentment and the descent back down to reality and humility. It was re-released as a single titled “untitled 07 | levitate,” but only included the first part of the song which has the sharp beat, deep bass and the recognizable chorus. This is not to lament Lamar’s mainstream appeal, but rather to reflect on whether he will continue to resist the impulses of the music industry as he has done so successfully in the past.
Conjectures aside, listeners will be thankful that Lamar shared this rogue album. It is everything that is recognizable about him in a compact package, with enough newness to excite without spoiling his next project. The presentation of “untitled” as an off-season compilation album is a mystery, however. Is it an opportunity to sell some more music? Hard to believe, considering he has never suggested a belief in materialism: “Bentleys won’t get you high, no, no, no” he raps on “07.” Maybe it is a mockery of our short attention spans—as much as Lamar has relied on his exceptional musical storytelling ability, perhaps he felt that “TPAB” went over some listeners’ heads. But, if that had been the case, he would have doubled down on the poetry to spite those inattentive beings. No, “untitled” must just be an amuse-bouche while we wait for the next masterpiece.
The Life of Pablo. Kanye West. 2016, GOOD/Def Jam.
West’s new release “The Life of Pablo” (TLOP) is more than another landmark in his career. It is now difficult to imagine him producing an album that surpasses his latest three, not because he seems to be exhausted of talent or creativity, but because the overall tone of “TLOP” sounds too contented. The glib reaction to West in 2016 seems to signify indifference to his music and disdain for his public persona—he certainly hasn’t lost his knack for provocation and misogyny. They say they “miss the old Kanye, straight from the go Kanye, chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye” he raps on “I love Kanye.” Kanye is now viewed as a phenomenon rather than a musician. “I just want to feel liberated, I, I, I, I” he sings in “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” as though he were imprisoned by his fame. “TLOP” is musically professional and minimalistic without compromising substance or message. As an audience, we half-wish that artists would never grow up and lose some of the shine that drew us in, but it seems like this is West’s time.
To call “The Life of Pablo” musically revolutionary would be an overstatement, though it is certainly innovative. The album moves emphasis away from the traditional identifying characteristics of hip-hop, solid rhythmic beats and rigorous cipher, in favor of simplicity and purposefully placed pauses. The first impression is disjointedness, but on the second and third pass one begins to sense a thin web holding the individual pieces together. Even on the most wordy track, “No More Parties in LA,” the only features other than his voice are a calm drum kit and a few short samples. There is no particular interest in harmony, no rush to cram sound into a small space. Ubiquitous reverberations of feedback, organs, and gospel vocals give the album a hollowness and grandeur, as though it was recorded in the holy spaciousness of a cathedral. West has figured out how to make less into more, and it is something to behold.
West’s voice is relatively more grounded on “TLOP” than other recent albums, but not exactly down-to-earth either. He frequently affirms his commitment to his family and faith while maintaining the usual refrains about fame and women who are not Kim. The opening track proclaims, “We on an ultralight beam, this is a God dream, this is everything,” as though he is simultaneously touting his own holiness while also acknowledging his humility in the face of God. It is difficult to discern where this line is drawn. “FML” is an ode to West’s struggles with temptation, with the solemnity of a confessional shaped by the intermittent snap of an electronic snare and the Weeknd playing choirboy. Yet he indulges in his usual self-aggrandizement as well. “Feedback” is one of several self-celebrations on the album, and West somehow makes hip-hop pretentious with this track, haughty feedback and a sparse snare carving out a vibe that is still appealing.
The new West is certainly dynamic, with his totally pared-down style and the over-sharing persona both showing on “TLOP.” But the most unfamiliar aspect of this album is the complacency that oozes from all the glamour, as though West’s heart is no longer in the game, running on the fumes of ambition. It is as if his focus is directed on something other than himself. Behind the phenomenon it would seem that West is human like the rest of us—who knew?