Kendrick Lamar vs. Capitalism

untitled unmastered is another stunning but uneasy listen from a rapper trying to make the most of a screwed-up system.

Lamar performs at the 2016 Grammys (Matt Sayles / AP)

Ever since Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered arrived online a week ago, I’ve been walking around muttering “levitate, levitate, levitate, levitate”—one of the mantras Lamar repeats during the first couple minutes of “untitled 07 | 2014-2016” as a slow-rolling rhythm commands all who listen to bob their heads.

It’s possible to imagine a version of that song as a hit, booming from car windows in summertime as America learns to say “no, no-no-no” in the exact cadence Lamar does. But in the form it’s in now, a hit it shall likely not become. Two minutes and 30 seconds in, the groove disappears, a child sings a jingle about Compton, and the tempo resets for a whole different Lamar rap. Later, the song mutates yet again into what sounds like a live acoustic demo, featuring Lamar ad-libbing imaginary back-up singers and crowd sounds. The whole thing is kind of like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” if Freddie Mercury had just recorded himself saying “guitar solo goes here” where Brian May’s shredding currently is.

The (un)titles for this new album and its songs, the fact that its release apparently only happened because of a LeBron James tweet, and the fact that the music originated in the sessions for his 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly suggest that untitled unmastered should be approached as a bonus release. The arrangements are skeletal; the song structures are disorienting; the rapping is excellent. But after listening a bit, the album’s form and content together come to feel like Lamar’s starkest statement yet about the struggle for purity in the face of capitalist pressures to compromise. If it’s not always easily digested, that’s part of the message. Don’t be too surprised if all his songs are untitled from here out.

Lamar often raps as a form of dialectic, and on the opening track, he’s in the difficult position of arguing with God. After the singer Bilal demonically recites some dirty talk toward a “little lamb,” Lamar launches into a furious narrative about the Book of Revelations coming to pass while a gut-rumbling bass line and dread-making strings play behind him. When it comes time for Lamar to be judged by his creator, he points to his discography: “I made To Pimp a Butterfly for you told me to use my vocals to save mankind for you ... I tithed for you, I pushed the club to the side for you.” Pushed the club to the side for you: Avoiding pandering to the masses, according to this version of Lamar’s persona, is godliness.

And pander he didn’t. The most successful track off of the masterful To Pimp a Butterfly went no higher than 39 on the Hot 100. This seemed intentional; the album was a dense, noisy collage of experimental jazz over which Lamar rhymed—and gasped, and screamed—about shame, self-reliance, and social problems. Did it offer enough righteous, unvarnished truth to guarantee him a spot in heaven? At the end of untitled’s opening apocalyptic narrative, Lamar gets stuck on the way to salvation: “Life completely went in reverse/ I guess I’m running in place trying to make it to church.”

Maybe the stalemate comes from the fact that the club came to him even though he says he didn’t want it to. Lamar has moved millions of albums and is more or less a household name by now, and while “Alright” or “King Kunta” aren’t universal nightlife staples, they’ve achieved conscious-party-anthem status. This success sometimes allows him to swagger like any other rapper (well, better than most any other rapper), as when he methodically builds momentum through a litany of boasts custom-tailored to each of his label-mates on “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.”

But other times, he’s anxious about having prospered. “Get that new money, and it’s breaking me down honey,” goes the chorus on “untitled 08 | 09.06.2014,” whose twitchy funk arrangement was first heard on Jimmy Fallon. For “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013,” he talks of receiving advice from members of different races; the white perspective comes from record-label man trying to leech off Lamar’s talents and encouraging him to sell out: “What if I compromise? He said it don’t even matter / you make a million or more, you living better than average.” It’s not the first time this theme has appeared; exploitation by the music industry was the subject of “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” off 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city. Years later, he’s still concerned about it.

You can understand why. Diluting his message for a hit, or even just making it so the surrounding music could be more easily commodified, wouldn’t just be uncool, according to his worldview—it would be a sin. He’s already morally tainted, his music sometimes suggests, because the same system he profits from has helped keep places like his home town of Compton down. On “untitled 05 | 09.21.2014,” he lambasts “genocism and capitalism” as he puts himself in the mindset of someone considering murder:

See I’m livin’ with anxiety, duckin’ the sobriety
Fuckin’ up the system I ain’t fuckin’ with society
Justice ain’t free, therefore justice ain’t me
So I justify his name on obituary

Lamar lives a sober life, so whomever he’s rapping about isn’t him in the moment. Society has, as far as it goes, treated him okay lately; at the same Grammys ceremony he debuted this song at, he went home with a fistful of awards. This is, of course, one of the ongoing paradoxes around political art in America. It’s very hard to spread a critique of capitalism without using capitalism; it’s very easy for revolutionary messages to be co-opted by the very institutions and forces an artist might set out to change. When Lamar talks about the devil—code-named “Lucy” on To Pimp a Butterfly—he’s talking in part about the allure of joining the rich-to-get-richer class. On untitled’s second track, he gets a raise, spends it all on himself, looks at the ailing streets of Compton, and wonders “where did we go wrong?” Later, he copies a signature Drake flow and threatens, “What if I empty my bank out and stunt? / What if I certified all of these ones?”

That last line might be a reference to new Recording Industry Association of America rules around album-sales certifications—rules that Lamar’s label boss has said amount to a “cheat code” that his artists would not honor, even though they would technically make To Pimp a Butterfly a platinum record. Lamar is grimly obsessed with the concept of easy gratification, and says it tempts him as much as it tempts many people in poor, black neighborhoods where 9-to-5 jobs are hard to come by and rarely pay well. The final track has him talking to a woman who has earned a scholarship but is still running a credit-card scam, and Lamar doesn’t judge her; as a “rapper chasing stardom,” he’s also a taker of risky shortcuts. At the end of the album, a low voice—maybe God?—cuts in: “When a blessing takes too long, that’s when you go wrong / You selfish motherfucker.”

But Lamar does have a tentative solution to the dilemmas he as an artist and his community more broadly face. “Head is the answer,” goes a refrain on a few tracks, which might be an oral sex joke but is also probably a call for conscientiousness. At one point, he references Kanye West and Jay Z’s song “Murder to Excellence,” which powerfully explains hip-hop’s money obsession as a natural response to poverty, violence, and oppression. Lamar has always stood apart from the flashy materialism of many other rappers, but instead of condemning big spending he wants to put it to good use: “It’s evident that I inspired a thousand emcees to do better / I blew cheddar on youth centers, buildings and Bimmers and blue leather.” And on “untitled 05 | 09.21.2014,” he has his colleague Punch sermonize for the power of uncompromising art. “I could speak the truth and I know the world would unravel,” Punch raps, before airing a very Lamar-ian second thought: “Wait—that’s a bit ambitious, maybe I’m trippin’.”

This is part of the genius of Lamar: recognizing the forces that keep people from living up to their ideals, while also embodying a certain kind of idealism. If the world is too full of temptations that, once indulged, end up enabling larger injustices, he will at least try and make music that resists those forces—sonically, lyrically, presentation-wise. untitled unmastered is expected to debut at No. 1 in the country, which would means his faith has been, yet again, rewarded.