We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.
One time for the altar boy turned rap king, for the rap king turned witness, and the witness turned prophet. Kendrick Lamar and his cosmic jazz conglomerate open-palm-smacked the world silly in 2015 with the magnificent To Pimp a Butterfly. Twenty months later, it’s worth retracing the arc and significance of its impact: Arriving in the midst of what the critic Greg Tate called a resurgence of for-real black music, TPAB was a time machine dressed up as a hooptie, blasting back and forth through the eons with the ghost of Sun Ra as its guiding light and Herbie Hancock backseat driving. At the wheel was K. Dot himself, rap’s wary messiah, taking us on a spiraling world tour from his hometown of Compton to Cape Town, South Africa, talkin’ our ears all the way off with spoken-word street narratives, barefaced personal testimonies, and theatrical drama as tangled as his plaited hair.
In a year when it often seemed the only people screaming about the ills of negritude were the black youth protesting in city streets across the country, Kendrick matched their fervor; the youth responded in kind by adopting “Alright” as the preeminent protest song of a generation. Yet the album stood alone, vast, more than the sum of its singles. K. Dot’s flippancy toward mainstream sensibility forced audiences to meet him right there in the black before he returned back to his reclusive state.
A year passed. While we chewed on To Pimp a Butterfly’s brain-food smorgasbord, another king — LeBron James — starved for more music from Kendrick. At James’s behest, Lamar and his label, Top Dawg Entertainment, gifted the masses with Untitled Unmastered this March — an unexpected handful of unused song sketches from the magnum opus’s sessions, widening the scope of an already wide-angle vision. If TPAB matched the passionate disillusionment of today’s youthful protests, then Untitled Unmastered is the intimate backstory. The new album put forth the most emphatic argument for how the making of the masterpiece is just as important as the final product — that the inner discourses, loose ends, and premonitions at the center of TPAB didn’t just spring up from nowhere. Not everyone heard it at the time, but Kendrick was drawing back the curtain on the various perspectives vying for speaking time within his own inner psyche. He was also forewarning us of 2016’s inevitable tumult.
Today, as Trump’s racist regime takes form, many communities are facing the “how did we get here?” question. Answers of a kind lie within Untitled Unmastered, where Kendrick (re)prophesied the untenable struggle between capitalism, otherness, and democratic discourse with clever precision. The way he talks about and to whiteness illuminates the oppressive power dynamics that characterize not only the streets, but his own place in the music industry. “Untitled 03 | 05.28.2013” articulates the paths by which knowledge is traded like trinkets from one perspective to another, echoing the Socratic model of discourse. In search of “peace of mind,” an unspecified “Asian” puts Kendrick on to the practice of meditation, because the rapper is “thinking too much”; an equally vague “Indian” breaks Kendrick off on the importance of land equity, reminding him, “These tangible things expire / Don’t you expect income with so much outcome.”
The black man, in this song, is painted as both lustful — “pussy is power” — and clear-eyed: “We do it all for a woman, from haircut to war.” But encountering whiteness, for Kendrick, meant giving up a part of himself or the fruits of his labor. The white man in the song answers the black-ass concern of selling out by saying that it “don’t even matter,” speaking to not only the speaker's cultural obtuseness but his desire to reduce powerful black art to useless commodity. The differentiation that Kendrick makes between the races on this song is reductive — stereotypical, even — but the lessons he’s learned and rehashed about whiteness, power, and stolen freedom are worth the gripes.
As much as the album breaks form — kicking in the door of established genre norms and throwing jazz and funk into the hip-hop gumbo — it’s even more about breaking out of a singular notion of cultural and political discourse. Kendrick’s brilliance relies on his willingness to interrogate himself as both a political actor and a black arts leader. In 2016, mainstream audiences couldn’t run away from the bloody reality of institutionalized black violence. But skinfolk been having to deal with their subjugation since Plymouth Rock landed on us. This long-standing relationship to subjectivity gives us a keen black eye for America’s undying love for black death.
Embodying Nina Simone’s paranoia, Kendrick frames the multifaceted trauma of black death by dumbing his perspectives down to astrology. Born under the Gemini moon, he’s never been shy about the inner dichotomies that define his approach to rapping and living. As far back as 2010’s “The Heart pt.1,” he found strength in the binary: “Any means necessary, get the campaign right / Very emotional, I’m a Gemini / I love hard and I fight harder, a born author.” Last year, on TPAB opener “Wesley’s Theory,” he was caught between fighting capitalism and giving in to his inner materialist: “Your horoscope is a Gemini, two sides / So you better cop everything two times.” On Untitled Unmastered, his dual personalities come into conflict with brutish physical reality.
“Untitled 05 | 09.21.2014,” which feels like a precursor to TPAB’s eerie and volatile “Institutionalized,” is a dramatic tale of the trauma wrought by antiblack racism. A murderous Kendrick who’s “living with anxiety” and “duckin’ the sobriety” stalks an unnamed man and gets mighty close to offing him, until he sees the man’s son and drives away. Kendrick is the witness who sees himself within the people he observes. He knows that “genocism and capitalism made me hate,” and owns up to the fact that despite stopping himself from killing another person, he’s still got some self-questioning to do. This is a fictionalized rendering of Kendrick's internal dialogue, but it suggests that Kendrick is just as anxiety-plagued as the gangbangers he grew up around — “I’m passin’ lives on the daily, maybe I’m losing faith” — and as nervous about the painful future that is assured to come to pass. As he ominously puts it, “The borderline between insanity is Father Time.”
Kendrick is immeasurably concerned about the world’s future as well as his own. The album opens with vivid imagery of the apocalypse: “Untitled 01 | 08.19.2014” finds him in a metaphysical garden of Gethsemane, at once prayerful and doubtful. Over Thundercat’s eerie bass plod, he spits off-kilter of fire and brimstone, frantically interloping images of end-times while flipping through the Book of Revelations. The Hell he foresees is full of “preachers touching on boys,” “backpedaling Christians settling for forgiveness,” and “atheists for suicide.” But when it’s his turn for judgment, Kendrick is surprised by his position among the damned. When God asks, “What have you did for me?,” Kendrick pulls out the résumé — “I tithed for you, I pushed the club to the side for you / Who loved you like I love you?” But the future has been decided, and Kendrick is resigned: “I guess I’m running in place trying to make it to church.” This dialogue between Kendrick, the secular world, and God illuminates the futility of judgment in the wake of black folks’ shared demise. These moments of realization often come too late. The gavel’s already been dropped, the noose already tightened, and we’re just waiting for the world to catch on.
Expecting Kendrick to supply all the solutions to the world’s ills is asking quite a bit. He’s still figuring himself out. But he’s got a good head start on Untitled Unmastered. When he repeatedly intones “head is the answer” in the call-and-response chorus of “Untitled 04 | 08.14.2014,” he’s also going further into what it means to have freedom of the body and freedom of the mind. While the “government misleads the youth” and “the preacher man don’t always tell the truth,” Kendrick cleverly posits that the answer might just be ... head. The baddest MC will always break you off a little truth. And whether you seek freedom from sexual repression or a cripplingly narrow socialization (or both), the body and mind must be unencumbered if you’re going to get anywhere.
More pragmatically, Kendrick paints himself as a living example of the small things MCs can do to inspire the world. “Untitled 07 | 2014 - 2016” is Untitled Unmastered’s most complete vision, appropriately spliced together in three parts. Sandwiched between fleeting highs and sexual release, Kendrick’s most abrasive rap-happy persona, “Cornrow Kenny,” flows liquid and proves that he’ll body your favorite MC just off the cuff: “You niggas fear me like y’all fear God.” Even amid his meteoric rise, basking in sudden wealth — “The flattery of watching my stock rise / The salary, the compensation tripled my cock size” — he reminds us that he’s remained attentive to the needs of his city: “I blew cheddar on youth centers.” He’s also justifiably proud of his influence on the rest of his genre: Through rap persona (think his verse on “Control”) and his relative frugality outside of rap, Kendrick “hope[s] it’s evident that I inspired a thousand MCs to do better.”
The early returns imply that he, indeed, has. After a long run of materialism, it’s safe to say hip-hop needed to tell a different story this year. In 2016, leading artists drank the Lemonade, pulled up their Seat at the Table, penned masterpiece after masterpiece bringing radical black art back to America’s living rooms — all in preparation for round 300 and counting in the daily fight against white supremacy. Untitled Unmastered, in its loose abstractions and overlapping voices, could’ve easily gotten lost in the shuffle. But looking back now, more than any other album, it primed us for the multi-planar fight for the survival of our country early on. Perhaps most importantly, by making visible the time and care that go into his work, Kendrick undermined the notion of radical black art as simply a reaction. We’ve been here, creating black art in this white world. There’s nothing reactionary about it. And while the psychological trauma within black art was never going to be scaled back if Clinton won the presidency, it’s crystallized even more with Trump’s election and Cabinet decisions.
It takes courage to delve deeply into the funk of American racial trauma, internalized and otherwise, but Untitled Unmastered took that plunge. In the end, it’s much more than an album simply about cross-cultural dialogue or rap supremacy. It embodies the nature, process, and daunting revelations that come with wading in the murk that resides in each of us.
Next in MTV News's Year in Music 2016: Sasha Geffen on Calvin Harris and the glitch inside.