At this point in time, Kendrick Lamar finds himself in a peculiar situation most artists dream of. When considering the impact of his 2015 masterpiece, To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB), many of his fans, including myself wondered: “how the hell do you top that?” Is it even possible?
While we might expect most artists to revel in their success, Kendrick has always distinguished himself from that crowd. Aside from raw talent, what sets him apart from his contemporaries is his methodical approach. He just doesn’t simply release music to boost his ego or to dominate the genre, but there’s always a deeper purpose, and his most recent project, Untitled Unmastered is no exception.
Unfortunately, many listeners will skip it over, and you can’t blame them. Not only do the title and cover art (a brown shade with nothing on it) convey its insignificance, but the tracks themselves are labeled “untitled”, most of which are a combination of several songs. This poses a perplexing issue for his fans. Why would one of the top artists in the world right now downplay his music like that? Is he not spoiling his musical gifts?
It’s important to note that Kendrick’s motivation isn’t simply to release throwaways or b-sides from TPAB. Don’t be fooled by his subtlety, as the way this project has been released is really the peanut butter he’s putting his medicine of bitter truth in. In fact, its release is inextricably linked to its message, perhaps his most controversial and socially aware to date.
If Good Kid Mad City (GKMC) and TPAB were journeys into Kendrick’s superego, depicting moral dilemmas and social awareness, Untitled reflects his id – it’s ugly, cacophonous, but nonetheless, brilliant. Though he’s confronting the same topics of injustice he’s always had, we no longer hear sober, rational Kendrick, but instead we confront a tortured artist, crying for help.
Throughout the 8 tracks, two ambiguous statements stand out: “Pimp, pimp hooray!” and “Head is the answer.” If we heard these lines on a Lil Wayne or Chief Keef song, we might interpret them as clear cut allusions to their sex-crazed, hedonistic lifestyles. But in the context of a Kendrick Lamar song, it would be all-too-naïve to think that’s all he’s trying to say.
It becomes evident that something is very wrong after the opening track, an apocalyptic outburst of Biblical proportions. Unlike GKMC, where religion symbolizes a safe haven away from the horrors of the mad city of Compton, we now hear Kendrick frantically trying to make sense of a Godless world as he’s “running in place trying to make it to Church.”
But where does this theological despair come from? Did he not achieve the success he always dreamed of? Were his prayers not answered when he did what so many failed to do before him – stay true to his values while also gaining mainstream recognition?
As these questions become evident, it seems that what many consider to be a blessing is really a curse in disguise, namely that the same popularity that is cultivating this success is also diluting the meaning of Kendrick’s music, and to a further extent his own identity and self-worth.
As the project goes on, he becomes more concrete with describing his inner turmoil, until he outright says it on untitled 05: “I’m passin lives on a daily, maybe I’m losing faith/Genocism and Capitalism just made me hate.”
The panic we hear seems to come from the twisted realization that unbeknownst to him, Kendrick’s achievements plunged him into a kind of abyss. How can you fight poverty when you’re drowned in material goods? How can you combat racism when you have to rely on those same people to get your message across? Becoming aware of this, Untitled seems to heavily revolve around the idea that Kendrick once again considers himself to be the biggest hypocrite, but for a different reason than in 2015: the more successful he becomes, the more he isolates himself from his message. This leaves him two extreme options.
The first one is to succumb to the highs of fame, sedating himself beyond thought and remaining complacent. Kendrick flirts with this idea on the first part of untitled 07, perhaps the catchiest tune on the whole project. Using his intoxicated alter-ego, we hear him burst out: “drugs won’t get you high as this.” But this isn’t expressed with a tone of arrogance or indifference. In fact it sounds much more like a desperate plea, warning his envious listeners that coming to terms with superstardom is far beyond getting over a coke habit. The second option is becoming a martyr, like his spiritual mentor, Tupac Shakur, whether it be ostracizing himself from the blood money he’s earned in a capitalist, racist society, or actually dying for the truth.
Franz Kafka once told the story of a Hunger Artist – a man who willfully starved himself to entertain others. Frustrated with the lack of appreciation of his audience, he soon realizes that artistic value is inherently misunderstood, leading him to starve himself until he withers away into obscurity. We hear the same kind of sentiments reflected by Kendrick as he’s pimped by his own unrelenting audience. Perhaps “head” or enlightenment is his only hope for redemption.