by Dom Jones
When Beyoncè dropped a surprise album in 2013, everyone went wild… except me. While I could respect the audacity and confidence it took to release work with no leading marketing and promotion, as well as the remarkable and immediate reaction, Beyoncè isn’t someone who musically excites me. So this past Friday, when Kendrick Lamar surprised us all with a new album Untitled Unmastered, I finally got to feel what the Beehive felt back then. I immediately downloaded the album at 12:05am when the headlines started flooding my timeline, but went to sleep, as I had an Ear Training dictation midterm the next morning. When I pressed play the next morning on my way to breakfast at the Caf, what I heard may have been untitled, but it was certainly mastery of the craft called hip-hop. If the dates which sit next to each untitled track are any indication, this was music recorded during the same time as Lamar’s last Grammy award-winning album, To Pimp A Butterfly. What differentiates the two is that the musicality of this “newer” project is unabashed, and the experimentation feels unfiltered.
Stephen Colbert’s late night talk show led to a public outcry that he release the track. Much to our chagrin, Kendrick said that the track would never be released. When performing at the Grammys, Kendrick visually and lyrically addressed how the prison industrial complex disproportionately affects African-Americans, coming out with a group of men in prison uniforms who are eventually freed from their physical and proverbial chains. The performance then transitioned into a group of tribal dancers, illustrating that black history doesn’t just begin with slavery and oppression, but has a long history rooted in royalty and community. This performance only heightened everyone’s desire to see his performed work become recorded work.
On Untitled Unmastered, Kendrick doesn’t reinvent the wheel, rather he calls upon artists who have engaged similar topics with jazz and funk as the sonic foundation underneath. If you listen closely, you can hear him harken back to artists like The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron. My favorite track, untitled 05, is led by one of the most fantastic bass lines I’ve heard, raging drums, and complimentary piano and horns. You almost wish that the vocals never begin, but when they do, the singing voice simply feels like an added instrument. When Kendrick finally comes in, his flow is heavy and persistent. The lines “Justice ain’t free/Therefore justice ain’t me/So I justify his name on the obituary…” we hear him engage the story of how mental health issues, disenfranchisement, and constant suffering often leads to addiction and/or criminal behavior in African-American communities. This is a story that Kendrick has made poetic without watering down. We hear the harshness of this reality through the instrumentation and the words, and for many of us who have experienced oppression, poverty, and struggle, we can see ourselves reflected through this music. I find songs like this are where Kendrick is at his best, sparking uncomfortable conversations about unjust realities.
The one gripe I have with this album is the way in which he talks about women, which is almost exclusively sexual in nature. While misogyny and the over-sexualizaton of women in hip-hop is problematic across the genre (and in all music), I held out hope for Kendrick when songs like “Complexion” appeared on To Pimp A Butterfly. This song addresses the painful topic of colorism in the the African-American community and how we’re all members of the African Diaspora regardless of our skin color. It even featured a woman who emcees, Rapsody. In this regard, Untitled Unmastered completely digresses. I question if Kendrick feels that the freedoms he talks about so vividly are for his black women counterparts as well? If so, it should be consistently reflected in the music.
Overall, I very much enjoyed this new album, both as a music student and a hip-hop lover and participator. I would love to see his work used a mechanism to discuss the social ills of our country in an academic setting.
HAVE YOU HEARD KENDRICK LAMAR’S NEW ALBUM? WHAT DID YOU THINK? LET US KNOW BELOW IN THE COMMENTS!