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.