Mar 9, 2016
Kendrick Lamar Reminds Us that Rap Is Play
Oh, you want me to touch you right there?/Oh, like a little lamb, play in your hair?
Kendrick Lamar is giggling. That’s the only way to describe the laugh he dissolves into mid-verse on the back half of “Untitled 7,” a warbled acoustic jam that devolves into what amounts to a sex joke. It follows up the song’s woozy, clacking first half, the obvious frontrunner in the recent batch of tracks he released late last Thursday night as untitled unmastered. This is my favorite part of the record, because God, does it ever feel good to hear him laughing, goofing off, straying into lewd territory not for the sake of political allegory, but just for fun. He’s playing; he’s making music with his friends and the stakes are low. It’s hard to remember the last time the stakes felt low for Kendrick Lamar.
untitled unmastered came out last Thursday–as in, not even a week ago–and yet the album has already been parsed and praised, as it richly deserves. My initial response to the album’s sudden iTunes drop was a groan, not again. The surprise album stunt is really starting to feel overdone, like attempting to celebrate Christmas every week. Sometimes, it feels like a way to manufacture undeserved excitement, or worse, the product of sloppiness (Kanye, I’m looking at you, though goddamn if The Life Of Pablo didn’t redeem itself for me). How many times can I gather up the energy to be astonished by a new record falling from the sky?
I’ve never read an album review written and published within a couple days of a record’s release that moved me, that really changed me. Have you? I don’t think it’s impossible, but generally, I feel too rushed to want to read anything the day after an album comes out. The surprise itself is already disrupting my schedule, infiltrating my life in different ways, altering how I will conceive of the year’s greater cultural trajectory. Plus, like I’m still listening to the music, I don’t want someone else’s words in my head yet. I want Kendrick’s words in my head. I want to meditate on those like cud, ruminate, especially when we’re talking about a lyricist of this caliber. In some ways, the reason untitled unmastered was released at all was so we could collectively do just that on our own time. Kendrick performed some of the verses from the album’s “Untitled 05” as part of a medley at the Grammys a couple weeks ago, and a fervent tweet from Lebron James helped spark Lamar to release the entire eight-song collection to the public.
Think about it, one of the greatest living players in the world begging you to release your music? If that’s how powerful an effect it had, then clearly it needed to be out. Kendrick tweeted that the songs are demos from To Pimp A Butterfly, which admittedly, made me even more skeptical. Until I realized that these demos tell the other half of that album’s story. “I made To Pimp a Butterfly for YOU” he snaps at one point–all the stress, perfection and precision of that album’s carefully constructed layers coming through in a single line, whether he’s talking to God, to us, or to the five-year-old kid in Compton who idolizes him. It was on his shoulders; it had to be perfect. It needed to be the opus. And it was. So to follow that up, now, we get to hear Kendrick at play. untitled unmastered is the respite, we get to hear him mid-idea, mid-song, commenting on how sick a drummer sounds, reminiscing about oral sex, trying out ideas before they need to be Ideas.
Because as these snippets surfaced in various forms–the Grammys, the now infamous pre-TPAB version of “Untitled 3” as the last musical performance on The Colbert Report, what was once “Untitled 02” performed on Jimmy Fallon in January (it’s “Untitled 08” here, and colloquially called “Blue Faces” after its refrain)–they assumed a life of their own. They resonated too deeply to be lost to the foggy world of B-sides and rarities, but maybe part of why they did is because they weren’t attached to any album cycle’s grand narrative. As Kendrick tackles racism in America in his music with unabashed, unwavering directness, there’s a tendency to categorize him as a “conscious rapper,” to put him in a box or relegate him to only serious, political issues. I think that’s why hearing him laugh about sex on “Untitled 7” felt so good. Those moments existed on TPAB too, but they’re able to unravel and exist independently here as sketches, with sole contribution from his friends Punch and Jay Rock. (Can’t/won’t comment on the inclusion of accused rapist and confirmed rape apologist Cee Lo Green, because I want to play for a while too instead of fight.)
Surprise releases initially hinge on startling the audience, inciting joy, and inviting listeners to experience music as a spontaneous thing, something that brings happiness and pleasure. The songs on untitled unmastered touch on dark and heavy topics in a way that feels illuminated, because they don’t need to separate out sex and revolution, or rap and jazz; Kendrick presents his unmitigated politics and lust without pretending they belong in different realms. That’s another way this album situates him in the same ballpark as Kanye, whose latest album mixes the gospel and the garish in equal parts. Lamar is pulling back the curtain on his own perfection; this is a champion player at practice, not fighting for his title. Any athlete, musician, creative person knows that sometimes what happens in the slog of the everyday glows with more glory than what can be found up on the podium. Maybe that’s why it was LeBron who clamored loudest to hear these songs. Who knows better that the behind-closed-doors magic of a perfect practice free throw can eclipses a victory shot?
There’s a horrible, hackneyed phrase that the most basic among us cling to with odd insistence: Dance like no one’s watching. But with untitled unmastered, it’s hard not to think that we’re hear Kendrick rapping like no one is listening. “Now I run the game, got the whole world talkin’,” Lamar rapped gleeful on “King Kunta,” but after the initial thrill we can forget: having the whole world watching changes the way we perform. Sometimes, it robs us of our inherent joy in whatever game we play, whatever art we make. Sometimes, to get back in touch with our creative force we have to do it in the dark, behind closed doors, and lose ourselves in the act, audience be damned. As the stakes have become so high for the message that Kendrick Lamar has shouldered up–and for rap in general, to take the lead fighting the battle against racism in our country–some of the early playfulness of the form has been forgotten. This album need not be part of the arms race between Kanye, Drake and Kendrick. Here, even the humble album name, untitled unmastered, lets this record be a blank canvas for our projection of joy, uncertainty, insecurity.
We press play. We play music, we call our greatest athletes and musicians players, for a reason. Play invokes gracefulness and fulfillment, a certain lightheartedness and a sense of destiny. Another, even worse saying goes hate the player, not the game. But with untitled unmastered, it’s the reverse; we may hate the game, but we can’t help but love the player. Because he’s a goddamn master of his craft. He’s mastered and bested the game. Now it’s time to play.
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