New York - Fresh from his triumph at the Grammys, Kendrick Lamar has returned with a surprise new album that shows a more spontaneous side to a rapper still thinking big about the world's ills.
The album released on Friday, tellingly entitled "untitled unmastered." brings together songs that Lamar has performed in recent months along with studio outtakes in which the rising star both reflects on the discomforts of fame and warns of a society in spiritual crisis.
"untitled unmastered." starts where Lamar left off musically with a jazzy pizzicato on a string bass but quickly goes into heavy lyrical territory.
Lamar conjures up imagery from the September 11 terrorist attacks and the Book of Revelation as he cautions against hypocrisy among the religious as well as atheism.
"Another trumpet has sounded off and everyone heard it / It's happening, no more running from world wars / It's happening, no more discriminating the poor," he raps.
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The 28-year-old artist hails from the gangsta rap capital of Compton in Los Angeles County but, while maintaining street cred, considers himself a Christian.
He brings the themes together later in the album as he tries to get inside the mind of a murderer, speaking of how the American business of mass incarceration can crush faith.
"Genocism and capitalism just made me hate," he raps, in a neologism that turns genocide into an ideology.
A rougher feel
The rollout of "untitled unmastered." could scarcely be more different than that for his last album, "To Pimp a Butterfly," which came out almost exactly a year ago after a lengthy buildup and immediately achieved iconic status in the hip-hop world.
"To Pimp a Butterfly" experimented widely with conventional form, bringing in spoken word interludes and jazz segues, to create an intricate portrait of the state of black America, with the song "Alright" emerging as an unofficial anthem of the protest movement against police brutality.
Lamar led the Grammys by winning five awards at the music industry's big night on February 15. He received a near-record 11 nominations and won praise for his spirited, politically tinged performance that teased on the unreleased material.
"untitled unmastered." features a series of cameo appearances, most notably by CeeLo Green who adds his mellifluous yet soulful tenor voice.
The latest album digresses toward the end with a more than eight-minute track, which hip-hop artist Swizz Beatz revealed to have been produced by his five-year-old son, that culminates in a lackadaisical sing-along to acoustic guitar.
Yet the eight-track album, which, true to the title, assigns numbers and dates rather than names to each song, ends with a polished dose of funk.
Still a 'crash dummy'
On that final single Lamar, as was his wont on "To Pimp a Butterfly," turns his self-questioning about his role into a larger examination of social forces.
"Why so sad? Walking around with them blue faces," he sings to the beat, a play on words as he conflates an expression for sadness with the color of the stripes that appear next to Benjamin Franklin's portrait on new $100 bills.
Lamar reflects on a young woman conned into credit card debt and brings back an enduring image from "To Pimp a Butterfly," that of a South African beggar who makes the rapper wonder about his fortunes.
"Ain't no money like fast money / Even today I'm considered a crash dummy / A rapper chasing stardom / How can I fast forward?" he sings.
Lamar delves into the racial dynamics behind the music business on the album's third track, a parable in which the rapper seeks advice from people of four races about his success.
The Asian, according to Lamar, urges him to meditate and the Native American tells him to hold onto land. The black man encourages him to seek sexual satisfaction.
And the white man? He told Lamar "that he selling me for just $10.99."