By Sam Haas, Editorial Editor

Rap and hip-hop have, in many senses, long been genres prone to polarity and debate. Conscious songs vs. popular anthems; lyrical aces vs. commanding performers; kings of the studio vs. kings of streets; albums vs. mixtapes; East Coast club vs. West Coast gangsta; singing vs. rapping. Kendrick Lamar’s surprise eight-track, 34-minute “untitled unmastered,” released two weeks ago and composed of unpolished studio demos from 2015 Grammy award-winning album “To Pimp A Butterfly,” immediately posed many of those questions to fans. In particular, observers honed in on format – is it an EP? a compilation? a random scrap heap? – and production style – free jazz? funk? new age? – as their battlegrounds.

The work (and Kendrick along with it) defies easy categorization. The instinctive temptation for listeners is to take every word with gravity, to find the layer of meaning underneath the double entendre. After all, Kendrick opens on “untitled 01” with a vivid imagination of the rapture, Book of Revelations-style, spun over top absurdist strings and discordant bells. “I made To Pimp a Butterfly for you/ Told me to use my vocals to save mankind for you/ Say I didn’t try for you, say I didn’t ride for you/ I tithed for you, I pushed the club to the side for you,” he raps, positioning himself simultaneously as a loyal footsoldier for God and a frustrated believer. For a second, he sounds as if he’s addressing his fans before pivoting firmly back to faith. The verse ends with Kendrick reflecting on a vision of the apocalypse and his struggle to actually move closer to God, musing “I guess I’m running in place trying to make it to church.”

That weightiness is forgotten three tracks later on “untitled 04,” when the rapper begins by diving into his mistrust of the government and the friction between religious institutions and God before telling listeners, “Head is the answer, head is the future.” Maybe Kendrick is still being spiritual and philosophical; maybe he really likes oral sex; maybe it’s both; maybe he’s turning a playful, throwaway line from the jam session portrayed at the end of “untitled 07” into a stand-alone track just because he can. He knows we’re watching, and he doesn’t really care. In many ways, this uncertainty is the beauty of “untitled unmastered.” Kendrick is reveling in his versatility, his creativity and his ability to blow off steam – which he’s previously called one of the central functions of his work – while still crafting the subsequent product into an album that holds up on its own precisely because it doesn’t try too hard.

Much of the joy of the release is seeing Kendrick in his natural habitat, or at least a very careful imitation of it. It feels intimate. On “untitled 07,” listeners spend the last two minutes sitting in with Kendrick and the backing band as he riffs on the backup singer. On “untitled 02” the rapper shows off his vocal range, modulating between a Lil Wayne-esque pushed-up rasp, a melodic tone somewhere between song and rap, a drugged-out attempt at sincerity and an earnest directness, all in service of both praising his crew at label Top Dawg Entertainment and worrying about the violence and struggle back home in Compton, Calif. It’s not internal reflection made public so much as a curtain pulled back to reveal what genius looks like when it’s just hanging out in the studio.

At times, Kendrick unveils rawness, as on “untitled 06” where he takes aim at the power structures, institutionalized violence and oppression of minorities that drive many toward self-destruction or depravity.  “Why you wanna see a good man with a broken heart? / Once upon a time I used to go to church and talk to God / Now I’m thinkin’ to myself, hollow tips is all I got / Now I’m drinkin’ by myself, at the intersection, parked,” he intones as his character in the song contemplates and then decides against shooting another man inside his own house. On other tracks he presents a polished flow and a well-packaged narrative, none more so than the shuffling, West Coast-style “untitled 03,” which is good enough and complete enough to be its own single.

The work as a whole contains a heavy dose of free jazz, avant-garde and funk. The drenched, layered sound is furthered by the electric bass of Thundercat sprinkled throughout, the breathy vocals of Anna Wise on three tracks, a surprise Cee-Lo Green appearance on “untitled 06” and several other guests on keys and strings. Kendrick, meanwhile, jumps between rap and song, flowing and direct, slow and fast, smooth and punctuated; the only gear he never really reaches is the hard-charging aggression he made famous with “Backseat Freestyle.”

In “untitled unmastered” fans are gifted the opportunity to watch Kendrick grow from his major-label debut on “good kid, m.A.A.d. city” to his current role as rap’s philosopher-king. Through it all, Kendrick explores the trademark versatility, political themes, search for answers, sexuality and unconventional beats that helped him top the world with To Pimp A Butterfly. While the question of seriousness remains – how much weight should critics, fans and tastemakers place on a set of not-quite-finished demos? – “untitled unmastered” is good enough and malleable enough for it not to matter much at all.

Photo courtesy Jon Elbaz, Creative Commons