A Historic Week in Hip-Hop: Kendrick’s New Album Is What Kanye Thinks He’s Doing

Kendrick at the Grammys

Kendrick at the Grammys. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images for NARAS)

The minutes following a surprise album release add up to a truly sacred time that no one talks about. It’s a communal vacuum of pure appreciation, wherein no bloggers or music journalists, no track-premiering publicists or branded content mills can stake the claim of publishing their opinions first. When there’s no filtered frame of context or criticism shaping that first listen, everyone’s ears are on an even playing field; it may be the only time we’re all nothing more than fans.

It’s a pure moment because it peers down upon the music criticism zeitgeist from on high, showing us how different journalists approach the same work with different minds and different views and giving us all an insight into the process of cultural interpretation. If album release dates are dead, maybe we’re better off for it.

Kendrick Lamar’s commitment to quality and poetry positions him at the commercial forefront of a renaissance in hip-hop’s recognition as a true cultural art form.

Of course I mention this because it’s exactly what happened when Kendrick Lamar surprise released untitled unmastered. last Thursday night, a moment of blissful discovery that everyone unanimously referred to as a gift, and it certainly was for me as it came out on my birthday.

A day earlier, Kanye West picked up his latest trolling session by starting shit with DJ Deadmau5, which as of this writing isn’t even his latest attempt to fight for his own relevance in the news cycle. Released as a short LP-length collection of unfinished sketches and segments from the To Pimp a Butterfly sessions, the extent to which untitled unmastered. still sounds fully realized and skillfully crafted is not only a reminder of Kendrick’s talents, but of the fact that the man doesn’t need to troll anyone on Twitter or sell shoes to communicate his vision.

Part in parcel with Kanye’s drawn-out, media whoring release for his awful The Life of Pablo, Kendrick’s release is a reminder that his throwaways are still more rich, relevant and righteous than the “gospel” album that Kanye spent years struggling over. (And still isn’t finished with.)

 Q-Tip

Q-Tip. (Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Sonos Studio)

More importantly though, Kendrick’s commitment to quality and poetry positions him at the commercial forefront of a renaissance in hip-hop’s recognition as a true cultural art form.

Washington’s Kennedy Center announced its inaugural Hip-Hop Culture Series this week, too, which Pitchfork reports will “honor the genre’s contributions to culture and society.” Q-Tip, of the legendary New York hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, was named the Kennedy Center’s first Artistic Director for Hip-Hop Culture. “With hip-hop constantly changing and evolving, it is easy to forget the history and legacy that precede it,” he said. “I want to begin at the beginning of the Culture to help people see its roots, better understand its present, and responsibly create its future.”

‘Untitled unmastered.’ is not only a reminder of Kendrick’s talents, but of the fact that the man doesn’t need to troll anyone on Twitter or sell shoes to communicate his vision.

So it’s been an unprecedented, monumental week for hip-hop, demonstrating to those for whom hip-hop is still largely unfamiliar that, one week after Black History Month’s end, the legacy and cultural impact of the art form is eternal. Considering Kendrick played the Kennedy Center five months ago backed by the National Symphony Orchestra, it’s also a reminder that the antiquated, racist gentry-held stigmas about hip-hop are starting to evaporate because of what Kendrick—the artist, the poet, the mortal man—represents.

“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/Who love you like I love you?” he raps on “untitled 01 | 08.19.2014.” The answer isn’t entirely clear, but the question is sincere. Kendrick’s love is indeed a gift, unfiltered, unmastered, untitled and unadulterated. The question we ought to ask ourselves, then, is what will we do with it.

A Historic Week in Hip-Hop: Kendrick’s New Album Is What Kanye Thinks He’s Doing