KENDRICK LAMAR – untitled unmastered. (Top Dawg/Aftermath/Interscope): Give it up for Lamar, who, according to whom you talk to (not me), gave us the best hip-hop album of 2015 if not the century, in theory an enviable position in a music culture based in some part on prestige and braggadocio—until of course it’s time for the seemingly impossible follow-up. So how do you follow up a hip-hop jewel that fused an invigorated P-funk with thick-as-onion social commentary scholars are still deciphering? Lamar’s answer is a series of half-finished cutting-room-floor leftovers that can (questionably/debatably) be seen as both a cop-out and a throwing down of the gauntlet; cop-out because he had them sitting around, gauntlet because he’s saying his surplus is better than your favorite rapper’s first serve.
Lyrically he treads the same ground he covered in both good kid, m.A.A.d. city and To Pimp a Butterfly, though in much broader strokes, fewer ornate references, and lesser gritty detail. He’s as cynical as ever about the fate of black America and America in general, still struggling with the guilt of getting out of Compton his fortune has afforded him to worry about at a distance, a personalized microcosm of the national issue of wealth, poverty, and the empathy gap. Musically he drifts between the neo-noir, smoke-filled jazz-lounge-sound Glasper, Thundercat, Baldacci, and Leimberg whip up (“Untitled 05”), the dark, throbbing, hallucinatory drug wooziness Vince Staples perfected on Summertime ’06 (“Untitled 07”), and the booty-shaking P-funk (“Untitled 08”) and bossa nova (check that killer Cee-Lo cameo on “Untitled 06”) he brought to the forefront on To Pimp a Butterfly. Stripped of any conceptual apparatus, the album serves as a more straightforward albeit less artistic vessel for Lamar’s not-often-enough-utilized knack for club bangers and on-the-nose political rumination.
As fortune would have it, mixtapes and the like have become an indispensable part of hip-hop culture, so while you can purchase a physical copy of this album, I doubt many take this as the proper follow-up to To Pimp a Butterfly—it’s simultaneously too conventional and too experimental without feeling exactly fresh or being chockful of jams to be hailed as a genius work of original art, but as a satiating placeholder? Works fine. Fact, works better than a lotta dudes’ A-game, you ask me. A MINUS