The Real Reason Kendrick Lamar Dropped a Surprise Album

When music is available everywhere, timing is more important than ever

By Eric Harvey

At this point, most people would likely accept it if Kendrick Lamar turned into the Terrence Malick of rap: an intensely private auteur who collaborates with whomever he wants and quietly emerges with a new god-size work every few years — the exact length of time that it takes to puzzle out the meanings of the last one. Lamar already has a CinemaScope-size quasi-autobiographical debut to his credit and a “difficult,” inward-looking follow-up that united critics and spawned a bona fide protest anthem. By one measure, he's the sixth hip-hop messiah; few would deny that he's somewhere in that holy order.

Many of Lamar's peers on the bleeding edge of 21st-century rap — think Drake and Future, working from a blueprint perfected by Lil Wayne in the mid to late 2000s — are consistently engineering collaborations, mixtapes, and side projects to keep their music in the pop-cultural bloodstream. This is a smart nod to the very real fact that their medium is so relentlessly forward-looking that slipping out for too long can render one immediately out of touch. Yet Lamar, who seemingly draws more from post-Coltrane astral jazz and Nixon-era funk than anything on rap radio or DatPiff, cuts a public figure that draws much of its energy from what’s not there. Elusiveness is part of his presence.

Untitled Unmastered, the outtakes collection that Lamar surprise-released last week, isn't a mixtape — it's the kind of thing that rock ideologues have long characterized as a peek behind the curtains at their “process.” Tracks have been circulating for a while now, performed on late-night talk shows, not to mention the most intense, incredible thing ever seen on the Grammys telecast. Untitled is also, as many immediately noted, really fucking good.

Aside from saying something important about Lamar and his current place in the pantheon of mind-blowingly good artists working in any medium, the surprise nature of the release says something interesting about how music obtains value in 2016. Amid the social-media buzz Friday morning, writer Mike Barthel wryly tweeted: “Congrats to Kendrick Lamar for getting a b-sides & rarities comp covered as a ‘surprise album.'” It was a salient point about what industry observers still call "album-release cycles" in a time when streaming platforms have reconfigured a lot of rules about how they turn. Scarcity used to be the way to make stuff look valuable; now it's "surprise."

The record business ran on various forms of scarcity for nearly a century: Musicians and record labels can charge for music recordings because consumers are willing to part with money for something they want to own — not just listen to freely on the radio or at a club — whether to show it off to friends as a signifier of good taste or, in the case of limited-run items, to bask in the aura of a thing that few others may possess. Once mp3s globally scaled by the early 2000s, the infinitely duplicable files all but eliminated scarcity, necessitating a new model for valuing music. Some artists and entrepreneurs set about engineering forms of artificial scarcity to fill that perceived need. One example of this is the annual pop-up vinyl collector’s market known as Record Store Day, which requires visiting particular stores on a specific date (or hitting eBay later that month) to buy exclusive, short-run LPs and 45s that take up physical space in the home. In an extreme example, there’s the Wu-Tang Clan’s recent (ill-fated) single-copy run of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, housed in a container crafted out of silver and nickel by a Moroccan artisan and described by RZA as “a single-sale collector’s item … like somebody having the scepter of an Egyptian king.” Such strategies are laden with nostalgia for the religious quest of digging for unique music, and while they contain significant public-relations value, they’re impossible to scale by definition and thus create value in limited ways.

The other way of addressing this challenge, most recently employed by Lamar, operates primarily in terms of time, not space: the surprise release. Two freshly label-free artists famously popularized the tactic in the late 2000s: Radiohead's October 2007 In Rainbows, using a “name your price” gambit, and Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts I-IV, released five months later with a “this one’s on me” strategy. Both ideas allowed superstars to align against mp-free not by wagging their finger at Soulseek hoarders, but by shellacking a veneer of philanthropy onto their digital-first recordings and, by extension, their fans. And, not coincidentally, both albums arrived with under two weeks' notice to the public — a dramatic twist that relied on controlling not the where of music’s release, but the when.

In a great essay published last April, Vulture pop critic Lindsay Zoladz expressed her exasperation at surprise releases’ fixation on the “when,” an idea that by that point had been colonized by Beyoncé, who dropped a bomb in 2013 and got millions of her fans to pay for it. In the lengthy shadow of Queen Bey’s miracle emerged a sense of never knowing when a massive new album was going to emerge out of nowhere.

Since then, many of the same massive musicians started aligning themselves with equally massive streaming platforms (a move that in many ways resembles the old Hollywood studio system) and started leveraging their fame to grant surprise exclusives on their own terms. Last August, Apple Music investor Dr. Dre announced the release of Compton in one short week via his own Beats 1 radio show. After a glut of social-media rumors, Drake and Future’s collaboration What a Time to Be Alive dropped a day after Drake’s official Instagram announcement, initially only on Apple Music and iTunes, per Drake’s contract. Earlier this year, Rihanna’s Anti finally appeared as a Tidal exclusive. The most compelling example was Kanye West’s hyper-excited SNL announcement that The Life of Pablo was now available exclusively on Tidal. West seemed to be overjoyed not merely at the conclusion of a great TV performance, or happy that his album was now hearable in full on a platform in which he had a direct stake, but also at the power he could wield to make his music suddenly appear.

Yes, in a sense, the space is still important for these releases, but only for a limited time — the exclusive window granted to a particular outlet while the hype is at its hottest. West claiming that Pablo will never be for sale, or available anywhere outside of Tidal’s walled garden, is quietly stunning for this fact: He’s leveraging his celebrity to turn Tidal into a sui generis gallery housing his forthcoming work in perpetuity. It's a lesser version of Wu-Tang’s gimmick, but the goal is a similar kind of engineered exclusivity. It’s doubtful that West’s idea will work — rumors are circulating that Tidal itself is for sale — but as with so much that he does, the gesture is what counts.

Here, once again, Lamar is an iconoclast among his peers. Untitled Unmastered was the opposite of an exclusive: simultaneously released on Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music, iTunes, and Google Play Music. It makes sense, in a way. In the same way that Lamar seems too individualistic to pair with a service, he appears too much of a perfectionist to join the mixtape fray. So when he drops what is labeled as a bunch of cast-offs, it registers less as a publicity grab than as an unpretentious statement that even his trimmed fat is meatier than his peers’ choice filets.

Yet despite his messiah status, Lamar is nothing if not a shrewd celebrity, swimming ahead of the same streams of late-capitalist supply and demand as his peers. Since Beyoncé’s surprise album drop in late 2013, major pop stars have adopted what might be viewed as a “shock doctrine” approach toward music commerce in our post-scarcity moment — a soft adaptation of Naomi Klein’s contention that global hegemony is achieved by sliding in new regimes amid the disorientation of a bombshell (often quite literally). In the pop world, the surprise release can’t be talked about outside of the highest .01 percent of pop stardom: Lamar is among the only entertainers who can leverage their fame enough to skip lengthy promotional cycles. Surprise releases offload the anxious labor of demand from the musician and her PR team to the fan. In 2016, this has become the real work of the pop messiah in a music market where everything is available all the time. When the release of new work is as startling as its content, ignoring your favorite artists even for a moment is just too big a risk.

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