Uneven but interesting releases from Kendrick Lamar

Compare that to the reality-show circus that has surrounded every aspect of Kanye West’s new album The Life of Pablo: his daily Twitter rants, his star-studded listening party-fashion show at Madison Square Garden, his ongoing tweaks of its tracklist, lyrics and mixes. Only after The Life of Pablo moved from the streaming service Tidal to platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, with a download available via Kanye’s own website, can we accept that the album is actually finished — and then, only with caution.

Both release strategies were in their own ways self-indulgent — one clearly more so than the other — but these are the two most vital rappers in the game today (sorry, Drake), so there’s no arguing both merit all the hype the music world gives them.

But do their new albums?

The “Top” in “Get Top on the phone” is Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, head of Lamar’s label. On untitled unmastered., it’s not clear why Lamar wants to get him on the phone, but it might have something to do with clearing out his notebook.

Judging from Lamar’s curious titling system, untitled was written and recorded during the same era as his 2015 masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly. All eight songs were dubbed “untitled” with a track number and date — the “get Top on the phone” song, for example, is untitled 02 | 06.23.2014. It’s confusing and annoying, and it ensured the album would produce zero hit singles, though it does invite listeners to define each song for themselves.

An odds-and-sods collection like untitled could only suffer in comparisons to Butterfly, and Lamar doesn’t seem to deny it. “Pimp, pimp? Hooray!” he chants here and there, amid woozy samples, free-jazz interludes and ghostly meditations on race and identity that wouldn’t sound too out of place on Butterfly.

“Stuck in the belly of the beast / can you please pray for me?” he raps in his dry rasp on untitled 02, sounding torn into pieces by all the attention he has received. (He’s a Gemini, he reminds you across untitled, his mind always in two places at once.) This is most evident on the angular untitled 03, a dextrous dissection of the forces pulling him toward spirituality, equality, women and money. He sounds conflicted and uncertain about his role in society on untitled 01, a vivid depiction of the apocalypse: “Atheists for suicide / planes falling out the sky / trains jumping off the track / mothers yelling ‘He’s alive!’ “

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