Kendrick Lamar is the best rapper alive, and it’s time we stopped arguing and started enjoying it. It’s been awhile since we had an undisputed best rapper, and we could have a million side arguments about the timeline of who rightfully owned the crown and when. At some point, Nas had it, Biggie had it, Jay maybe had it, Eminem had a reasonable claim, and some of us like to argue Wayne did too. Right now you would have a tough time arguing against Kendrick Lamar. Drake is more broadly appealing, Future is more prolific, Young Thug, more unrestrained, Chance the Rapper, more joyful, Kanye, more endlessly fascinating, and Vince Staples, more chillingly pointed. Kendrick, however, is a chameleonic presence on the microphone who can cycle through all of these modes as necessity dictates. untitled unmastered., an eight-song collection of demos released by surprise late last Thursday, displays a rapper in complete command of the spoken word, whether mired in visions of apocalypse or coolly batting around words and cadences for kicks.
As bits of batter left behind from the To Pimp a Butterfly sessions, untitled’s sketches share many of the album’s moods and obsessions. Faith and frailty come crashing into a familiar melange of jazz and funk, Kendrick cutting through the maelstrom with self-effacing soul-searching. Most of these cuts date back a few years, and you can see some of the rapper’s process in it when you compare the raw materials here to the beefed up versions presented in the late night performance run leading up to the Butterfly launch. “untitled 03” gets a quirky coffeehouse intro for a live performance during the final week of The Colbert Report. For The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, “untitled 02” appears as the show-stopping coda to a slow, sunny rendition of “untitled 08.” That these songs are fascinating even as deliberately unpolished fragments is the mark of a Best Rapper Alive. They’re riveting even when they’re not necessarily trying to be. (When they are trying—see Kendrick’s gobstopping cinematic wonder of a Grammys performance and the aforementioned tour de force on Fallon—timeless moments are made.)
untitled offers a number of these moments of whim whittling down to genius, like when Kendrick has a tinny, goofy blues vamp about blowjobs at the end of “untitled 07” sharpened into the baroque, political “untitled 04.” When your friends are Thundercat, Robert Glasper, and Anna Wise, the silliest ideas can congeal into magic. untitled is a bridge between the less obtuse and more beat-oriented scope of good kid, m.A.A.d. city and Section.80 and the ambitious sprawl of To Pimp a Butterfly, the act of molding the former into the latter in brilliant, messy progress. The religiosity that hung in the background of good kid creeps to the fore in the opening tracks, a bleak vision of the strife in the artist’s hometown as prelude to the biblical apocalypse. “untitled 02” pulls off the admirable trick of delivering the same image without ever leaning as dark as it ought to, zipping through a breakneck array of flows alternating between a wan, Thom Yorke-ish croon and the whooping delivery Drake grew when he got tired of being called soft.
Kendrick’s poise in funneling dark thoughts through a Technicolor tapestry of vocalizations places him in a league with the greats of his form. As a storyteller, he makes the black struggle sing not only through the fine articulation of his own voice but also through the pointed use of parables, tales of tragic or else sympathetic characters like the credit card scammer friend of “untitled 08,” the neighborhood youth of “Momma,” and Keisha and her sister from “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain)” and “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst.” As 2pac did with songs like “Brenda’s Got a Baby” and “Shorty Wanna Be a Thug,” Kendrick uses the collusion of these stories to drive the disorder of the California inner city home harder than simple autobiography might. While To Pimp a Butterfly was in large part a messianic yarn about artists’ personal obligation in lifting up the neighborhoods that birth them, untitled feels like a collection of the macro observations that pulled Kendrick into the crisis of self-doubt that Butterfly cuts like “u” bear out in pained self-flagellation.
untitled defies convention because Kendrick achieves all of the above while remaining light, flexing new money, and harassing the competition. A Best Rapper Alive is unafraid to luxuriate in the expanse of their impact. Nestled in the frayed verses of “untitled 01”—a prayer not unlike that of Hezekiah in the New Testament of the Bible, a faithful king who fell gravely ill, cited his record of service in a petition to God for more time, and got his wish—is the bold notion that Kendrick’s arch concern in rap is not personal success or technical excellence but the literal advancement of his form and his people. Competition is immaterial; “untitled 07” sends a withering dart at Jay Electronica suggesting Kendrick can’t “end a career if it never started” and snarkily mocks Drake in a grimy proposition for sex that warps “I just wanna take you down” to sound a lot like “I just wanna Drake you down.” A Best Rapper Alive never misses an opportunity to scrap, boxing high and hard wherever threats show face. (Drake could literally never; his entire legend hinges on an unbeatable sense for who not to cross and why.)
This is a lot to accomplish in 34 minutes of raw demos, but it speaks to the creative capabilities of the man himself that these bits and pieces of unsettled business feel like more than just that. untitled unmastered. is another piece in the daring discography of a young rap king, seemingly illogical in scope — who follows the heady, hard left jazz album with its even headier, even jazzier production scraps?— but conceptually edifying and, somehow, commercially buoyant nevertheless. Kendrick Lamar continues to succeed at pulling off confounding career moves none of his peers could or should, and for that, it’s time to call him what he is: the Best Rapper Alive. Pimp, pimp…
Craig is tired of mincing words. Follow him on Twitter.