Perfect Sound Forever

KENDRICK LAMAR


And That Means the World to Me
by Nathan Osborne
(June 2016)


As I lead this army, make room for mistakes and depression-
“Mortal Man"

Disclaimer: The sequence of events gets shaky from this point on.

The timing was wrong if only in being a little too perfect. “i" had hit the airwaves a couple months earlier. Its feel-good message of self-love seemed almost too easy to some listeners. Was K-Dot going commercial? Not in the sense of hits, Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City had held its share of those. But with this transformation, there was of yet no backstory. The gloominess on m.A.A.d. City of course couldn’t last, but the change seemed hasty, like right answers adopted merely for the sake of their being correct. The charts reflected audience’s hesitancy. We were excited; but just where was Kendrick taking us? Nothing could prepare us then, for the shift back to, not just darkness, but apocalypse. “The Blacker the Berry" was released during the height of anger and paranoia over the police brutality outrages. The song begins with an indecipherable chant, mutter, of which all that can be reasonably deciphered is “Black, black, black." Then, “Six in the morn, fire in the street; burn, baby, burn, that’s all I want to see..." With its industrial wails in the background, no other song has so fully rendered the bitter spectacle that America watched live on television: Ferguson- burning, looted, and rioted. The message of the song was complex. The song’s irony is that Kendrick’s excoriation of White America turns out actually to be one of himself. The song fully embodies the tactics and rhetoric of Black Lives Matter, until the last line, when it’s not been about that at all. The song turns the tables and goes beyond the limit of the discourse, and the question becomes: “Towards what ends is Kendrick working?" The journalism establishment seemed uneasy as to its implications, but knew celebration was necessary if only for assimilation. Some douchebag intelligentsia rep even deigned to annotate, i.e., legitimize and co-opt, the meaning of the song’s self-lacerations on Rap Genius1 . Lamar’s upcoming album was becoming radically divisive, in the sense of estranging our actual selves from what we thought we knew about ourselves. And the cover art hadn’t even been released yet.

In keeping with trends, Untitled Unmastered (Untitled from here on out) was released without warning. The story goes that Lebron James pushed the CEO of Kendrick’s record label for the “secret tapes" and, of course, how can you say no to Lebron? The presentation of the EP certainly goes along with that story. Eight untitled tracks, with just hints of recording dates to mark them off from each other and guide you through the journey. With such a layout, even with Kendrick, could expectations really be very high? But, of course, then Untitled blew everyone away. It really is one of those releases where, even in February, one could compellingly argue that “Nothing else in 2016 will top this." Versions of the songs had appeared in the past, mostly on talk-show appearances. “Untitled 3" was heard before To Pimp a Butterfly (TPaB going forward) was out; it was guessed back then that it was going to be an inclusion on that album. Parts of “Untitled 2" had surfaced in an appearance on the Tonight Showii , in the song “Blue Faces," which on Untitled becomes “Untitled 8." So it was strange to rehear these songs in their now-finalized renditions. And the verses, as they now stand, do sound definite in their placement, perhaps only because we’re now holding a physical product. However, “unmastered" as it may be, the production on the EP is more advanced than most standard blockbuster releases. We can conclude, accordingly, the story behind the release is largely marketing ploy, albeit the most believable and successful in recent memory. But to reduce its “untitled" nature entirely to PR would be cynical, and a discredit to Kendrick’s integrity. The songs are all presented as outtakes and demos from TPaB sessions, or closely related to that album in time and thematic concern. The quality, however, and the relative accessibility (in contrast to the difficultly of TPaB) raise questions about their non-inclusion. Though the answer could be simply chalked up to “too much good material," there remains a suspicion that other reasons behind their cut are lurking around. Through examining the themes present in both recordings, we can work out their different trajectories, and perhaps gain insight into what path lies ahead.




The apocalypse is present in Untitled too; indeed, an overwhelming sense of impending doom and dread can said to be the work’s defining trait. “Untitled 1" and “2" are certainly some of the most successful recordings ever created in this vein. Kendrick paints an end-times vision of corruption and disbelief more terrifyingly vivid than anything he’s yet produced. This oppressive aura looks back to m.A.A.d. City, but the subject matter is enlarged past Compton. Indeed, the dread conveyed is more existential and universal in nature than what was implied by m.A.A.d. City’s specific locale. For years, Kendrick has been hinting he’s viewed himself as some sort of prophet (“But a prophet ain’t a prophet 'til he ask you this question..."). In interviews he also has positioned himself as some sort of mystical successor to Tupac. In Untitled, he supremely fulfills one function of the prophet: herald of imminent destruction. “Planes falling out the sky; mothers yellin’ he’s alive"; Kendrick evokes details of post-9/11 despair that signify without getting into specifics. “Untitled 2," more alien by far than anything by Wayne, continues in this vein while also narrowing it to the vaguely personal. Kendrick’s voice bears witness to sorrow, loss, anger and guilt. He’s being crushed by those feelings and pained to the point of annihilation. “Drivin’ these hoes in; I know that I’m chosen" sounds less a boast than self-incrimination/laceration. Kendrick is aware of his calling, but here it’s more of an unattainable standard which he’s fallen from. His calling seems a tortuous self-knowledge he knows not what to do with.

In “The Blacker the Berry," though, the sense of doom is not so generalized. Rather, it appears to be, and then circles back round to focus on the self. The song comes three-fourths through the narrative of TPaB, where after reconnecting with his roots, he can move beyond the personal while connecting to it, and document “the hell that’s on earth." The self is not cast aside, but used as a mirror through which Kendrick’s larger society can be viewed. The doom is present, but questioned. Kendrick’s self-examination provides no easy answers, but it does make psychic headway towards the self- love and knowledge that he follows through to in the album’s close.

The shift from trap-styled production to live band in TPaB was one reason that album was so jarring upon first listen. This change in aesthetic reflected shifts in Kendrick’s thinking and also prodded him further from the pitfalls of his past. Kendrick’s work throughout his career has been characterized by a visceral struggle to reconcile the legacy and burden of West Coast “gangsta" rap. This back-and-forth dialectic between homage and questioning has been present since the earliest recordings. Overly Dedicated’s “Ignorance is Bliss" and “P&P 1.5" laid the groundwork for the dual nature of his later work. Kendrick has lived through the destructive fruit of the culture his forbears inaugurated; he knows both that lifestyle’s excitement and barbarity. He’s carried these contradictions inside himself since the beginning. Indeed, it could be said that he’s been constantly heightening these internal contradictions in search of resolution, and wholeness. One of m.A.A.d. City’s shortcomings is that it’s trap production lent its depiction of hellish conditions an aura of exploitative excitement and titillation. The subject matter was horrifying, and duly scored in parts as horror film. The approach, though, allowed that horror to still be enjoyed as aesthetic object. “Swimming Pools" became one hell of a drinking song, and “m.A.A.d. City" was certainly more exciting than anything in the lives of most listeners. The album questioned the roles, but ultimately still remained trapped in the script.

m.A.A.d. City and TPaB are both personal albums, in large measure expressly autobiographical. In m.A.A.d. City, however, Kendrick feels more absolutely alone. The title of that album made concrete a certain separation from its narrator’s community, even as he was attempting to fully represent it. In the context of TPaB’s narrative, what Kendrick needed was success to allow him to leave his city, precisely so he could return, complete the circle, and point the way out. While that earlier album seemed isolated, TPaB seems more communal throughout, even as Kendrick holds ever more of the spotlight, with less reliance on guest verses. The live band and collaborative nature of the project helped push Kendrick out of the strictly personal hell of m.A.A.d City. The shift from electronic to live, lone genius to collaborative director provided Kendrick the key towards resolving the contradictions he has so long wrestled with.

A large portion of TPaB’s narrative has Kendrick working his way out of psychological distress, i.e., an at-times suicidal depression. Thundercat’s funk contributions help to express that distress, and the struggle against it. His input has drawn comparisons to the serotonin-depleted funk of Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On. That album also documented an individual’s further descent into instability, drug abuse, and self-destruction. There, the self-destruction resulted in a swampy brilliance that was Sly’s apex and twilight before oblivion. Sly relished in the decadence before succumbing to its maw. In TPaB however, the music, of which depression positively drips from, expresses the struggle but also simultaneously holds the key towards its defeat. Sly fully embraced the self-destruction; Kendrick and his band embrace it only so as to find the way out. The shifting textures in TPaB evoke a certain spontaneity even in the midst of crippling depression. The whole album works like that greatest musical moment on m.A.A.d. City, wherein out of the oppressive gloom of “Money Trees," a counterpuntal trio of dissimilar voices arise, right before Jay Rock’s verse. “Love one of your bucket-head hoes- no way" don’t exactly seem uplifting, but uplift it does. The voices rise out of a depression so heavy it has caved, leaving its bearer light-headed and delirious. In TPaB, Kendrick endures his “dark night of the soul," but keeps the faith. The skies in that album are downcast, overlooking the city in storm from just outside. The “weather" ranges from light rain to downpour. There are moments, however, when the clouds briefly clear and rays of sun can be glimpsed. He finds consolation and unexpected light with the help of his collaborators.

Untitled works with the same band and occupies much the same musical universe. It’s doomier however, and we can read it as an earlier stage in the progress towards TPaB’s liberating mindset and sound. In keeping with the lyrical themes, Untitled’s music tends towards the apocalyptic, if not overtly paranoid-psychotic. As a prototype, or cousin, of the later sound, however, we can glean from it some insights into that musical universe as a whole. As many have noted, some of the few truly boring moments on the record occur in the second half of “Untitled 7": namely, studio banter. Are we to read this as in keeping with the EP’s “unmastered" nature? The high production values on the album avert us from that conclusion, the inclusion certainly was not accidental... But to reduce its inclusion to a gimmick to increase the EP’s “authenticity" seems cynical, and wrongheaded.

The curious deliberate/accidental or staged/authentic dynamic of the chatter brings us back to the “field tape" segments interluding m.A.A.d. City. Kendrick usually knows what he’s doing with his downtime, so we’d better listen up. And: It’s just Kendrick, accompanying himself with guitar (!), sketching out what will become, in its final iteration, “Untitled 4." Big whoop, right? But, what’s being put across in this moment, probably without most listeners even noticing, is Kendrick’s integral role in guiding the kaleidoscopic sonic landscape of Untitled, and, by implication, TPaB. While “orchestration" is probably too (non-)colored a word (this isn’t Jon Brion on Late Registration), the chatter definitely pushes the idea of Kendrick as a musical auteur in a rap game so deprived of them. Indeed, in the (bleh, un-)mastered version of the song, Kendrick’s still directing the chorus with barely audible directive: “Talk about the time you---“ The point there isn’t concrete, though it definitely adds to the psychotic vibes of the rest of the EP (whose voices are in whose heads, exactly?). But watching a single song develop from the inside and out, and in the midst of its own crevices, warrants a closer study of the sonic trip that was TPaB. Not merely the calculated mess it appeared to be upon release, that album can now be recognized as a carefully choreographed depiction of the various timbres and textures in one man’s soul.

I’ll allow that TPaB has some moments that are painful to listen. Or, instead, if I say “embarrassing," everyone will immediately register which song I mean. Key to the album’s narrative is “u," and its antipode, “i." The album can read from various angles, but undoubtedly one of the most important is Kendrick’s inner conversion from self-loathing to loving. So, because of the song’s integral role, why didn’t Kendrick realize that “u" verged on cringe-worthy, unlistenable even? I’ve tried to get into the song, to truly appreciate it on its own terms, and I can start to dig for a while its drunken, moping swagger. But once the bottles start clinking and, glug-glug-glug, I’m done; it all seems so damn affected. Kendrick’s struggle with his demons becomes hard to sympathize with because it’s just all too unattractive.

That self-loathing, crooked egocentrism is the connecting link between TPaB and Untitled. Indeed, we’re viewing the same self-destructiveness from different vantage points: different states of mind, stages of the descent, and different conceptions of self. The most purely personal song on Untitled is the fifth track, which is a continuation of, and shouldn’t be listened to apart from, the fourth. “4" follows up the preceding three tracks which have all been doom, mental instability, and unanswered questions. In “4," a round of voices starts out, harmonizing: “They say the government mislead the youth, youth, youth..." It seems we might have stumbled out into a clearing; what’s offered seems some sort of diagnosis even of what’s been tainting the water. And then, still all still chiming in together: “Head is the answer; head is the future- don’t second-guess yourself." The answer? With a statement so ambiguous (self-knowledge? Book-smarts? Entheogens?) the path isn’t yet clear, but we’ll take this tentative signpost for the moment. But suddenly, “5" crashes down like some IV shot to the mainline, its amphetamine percussion assuring us of what has happened- relapse. And it’s clear we’re back to square one, if not even deeper than before. “Somebody said you jumped into a pit of flames and burned to coal... And that means the world to me--“ So pleads a female voice, seeming to encourage the plunge into hell. But just who’s is this siren song, and why are they leading us into the pit? And then of course the split-second stop right before the first verse, enough to make the heart skip a beat in sync. Kendrick bursts into the song, sitting parked and drunk in his car, ruminating murder and destruction. The song’s narcotic pull towards self-destruction easily marks it as one of the most powerful things he’s yet recorded. But, in the context of TPaB, the song gets stuck in the self before reaching what made that other album so liberating, and redemptive.

Perhaps Kendrick left the songs untitled because they represent where he was before he found the way out. Viewing Untitlted from this angle, we shouldn’t immerse ourselves too deeply in the songs’ pull because the problems they represent have already been probed, and resolved, in TPaB. To uncritically anesthetize ourselves with the song’s narcotic tug, towards depression and instability, would be regressive in the sense of forgetting the path Kendrick has already partially illuminated. It’s not overly reductive to suggest that Untitled is “u" extended to thirty minutes, with “Blue Faces" tacked on at the end. The difference though is that Untitled’s songs are still bullshitting themselves; they’re too caught up in themselves to see the way out. They still find the prospect of self-annihilation thrilling. Like the caterpillar in “Mortal Man," they’re “lost in their own thoughts." They don’t yet understand the causes behind their self-destructive urges; they remain content with insanity as an end in itself. “u," passing through those states, examined the “dark night of the soul," in its true dimensions of ugliness and smallness. That song at least did us the service of making us want to move along as fast as possible.

In the interview with Tupac, at the end of TPaB, Kendrick tells Pac, “Sometimes I get behind a mic and I don’t know what type of energy I’m gonna push out or where it comes from. Trips me out sometimes." To which Pac replies, “Because the spirits- we ain’t even really rappin’, we just letting our dead homies tell stories for us." In keeping with that, throughout the two records, Kendrick spits fire like a man possessed. In TPaB, he utilizes such a varied arsenal of voices and vocal effects that there seems to be no real, basal level of Kendrick anymore. He’d used the technique in m.A.A.d. City, mostly for ominous effect, or when he represented his conscience, in “Swimming Pools." Throughout TPaB, however, he expands that vocal range to undreamt of subtleties. His vocal registers no longer function for specific didactic effect, but signify shifts in psychic state and equilibrium. It’s hard to pin down in just one song what the purpose of a specific voice is, but it all adds up to a whole and complements the shifting texture of the music entirely. Kendrick just sits back, and lets the Spirit guide him.

In Untitled, his changes in voice express above all else pain and the grotesque. Here, he seemingly channels not a multitude of outside spirits, but his strictly personal and isolated inner demons. His vocal style in the EP highlights his admitted influence by Eminem, who perhaps originated the vocal techniques Kendrick has expanded upon. Eminem used the style mostly to express contempt and sarcasm, a far cry from the ambivalent effects employed on TPaB. It makes sense, then, that Eminem’s influence would show up in Untitled, Kendrick’s most darkly egocentric vision. It shows up most clearly in “Untitled 2." “Shit, I’m amazin’, I’m feeding my craving" could easily be mistaken for Em in a lineup. The problem, though, is that for Kendrick to go Slim Shady on his audience would mean a desertion what has made him so great.




Back to the end, or the beginning, or somewhere in between... Untitled closes with “Untitled 08|09.06.2014," also known as “Blue Faces." True to that title, it’s downbeat, with grey skies once more, but after thirty minutes of impending disaster it seems like a pardon. An unobtrusive funk beat propels Kendrick through the verses; the backup vocalist who chimes in for the refrain of “blue faces" sounds as if fallen straight of some scagged-out dream of the '70s. Kendrick muses on the viability of the “get rich quick" culture he’s came up in, chiding his generation for valuing instant success over hard work. The pretense of a chart-topping rapper lecturing on these things could be viewed as wrongheaded, or hypocritical, but Kendrick recognizes this and places himself squarely inside the context of his milieu and critique. But beyond the verses, whatever their importance: listen to the hook once more. “Why so sad, walkin’ around with them blue faces? She said 'I’m down on my luck, and it’s something that I gotta have’." Through the downbeat groove, and the ambivalent resignation of the lyrics, the songs speaks to the disillusionment and exhaustion of a generation in limbo. That generation is stranded mid-decade, caught between the forgotten hopes of Obama and rushing towards we know not what. In the song we can glimpse the makeup of an era burnt out on idealism and without much faith in a better tomorrow. There might be hope, the song suggests, but getting to that better place will require years of committed self-examination and work. There’s a word for that summing-up of an era: they call that shit zeitgeist.

In January, before the release of Untitled, Kendrick premiered a version of the song on the Tonight Show that also incorporated snatches of verses that ended up elsewhere in the final product. We hadn’t really known what Kendrick had been up to in “forever"; the only sightings were these occasional TV appearances. And Kendrick stood there, fixed in place, transfigured, with blue light pouring from overhead like some melancholy halo. He rapped, once more, like a man possessed, but this time like a man possessed fully of himself, and confident. The gleam in his eyes hinted at a peace attained only after a journey into the abyss. Midway through the performance, which seemed unending by TV standards, and in the best way, he spits,

“I love God
I love speed
I love me
I love oceans in the deep
I love women, I love me."

And in this moment, Kendrick carries these seeming contradictions within himself entirely without contradiction; bearing the weight of some star within himself, possessed of the peace which passeth all understanding. He’s come back from a journey through hell, and he’ll share what he’s learned with those who’ll listen. It seemed a reproach to all that would come in the following months.



FOOTNOTES:

1. Chabon’s response was nauseating in both its relative immediacy and for its self-important tone. The truth is the song didn’t need a New York Times bestselling author to explain shit to audiences: the song speaks for itself, and fans will get it, which is perhaps what was troubling and prompted the annotation in the first place. At any rate, he should have left it anonymous and seen if it got any response. Barring that, a healthily independent press would have responded with amusement, or silence, not a reverent mention in the daily news feed.

2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qt3bNjORLe8

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