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Review: Uneven but interesting releases from Kendrick Lamar, Kanye

Two days after dropping his new album untitled unmastered., Kendrick Lamar appeared at Florida's Okeechobee Music and Arts Festival. He performed no new songs, and said nothing of the album whatsoever. The only reference to untitled unmastered. was one new lyric emblazoned on a giant screen behind him: "Get Top on the phone."

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!' "

Such topics don't exactly sound like Hot 100 fodder, though untitled 08 is a slick slice of synth-funk in the vein of the Gap Band or Dazz Band, and untitled 07's "levitate, levitate, levitate, levitate" line is pretty catchy. But Butterfly didn't sound like a hit album, either; for all its acclaim, it did get a little overlong and ponderous. Untitled is also not as tight as it could be — untitled 04 is a half-whispered head trip with no rapping; untitled 07 ends with about four minutes of bluesy crooning that sounds like it was recorded on a phone.

But Kendrick's sense of wordplay and dextrous delivery are worth saluting, even when he sounds like he's still trying to decipher this crazy ride called life. "The other side has never mortified my mortal mind / the borderline between insanity is Father Time," he raps on untitled 05. Even at his half-best, he's still deeper than most rappers at their apex. Anytime he calls, it's always smart to answer.

• • •

"You heard about the good news?" West raps on The Life of Pablo's fifth track, Feedback. "Y'all sleepin' on me, had a good snooze?"

Um, not exactly. It's impossible to sleep on Kanye West, considering how hard he works to keep Kanye West on the tips of everyone's tongues. Pablo's torturous album rollout aside, its lyrics made headlines, too, as he dropped references to his old rival Taylor Swift ("I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex ... I made that b---- famous") on Famous, and his wife Kim Kardashian's sex tape ("I bet me and Ray J would be friends / if we ain't love the same b----") on Highlights.

Look: Kanye's a smart man. He knows exactly the effect these dumb, base, tossed-off barbs will have. He wants so badly to be taken seriously as a multimedia artistic visionary along the lines of "Steve Jobs mixed with Steve Austin" (another instantly quotable Feedback lyric). And when you hear lyrics like these blended with Pablo's bracing, spectral production, you can sense a pattern — a deliberate juxtaposition of lowbrow and highbrow, of vulgarity and religiosity — that could pass for the start of some grand artistic statement.

But I'm not buying it. Too much of The Life of Pablo is messy and inconsistent, reeking of tracks half-finished (the 38-second Frank Ocean snippet Frank's Track, the spoken-word, Kanye-free Low Lights) or marred by some distracting over-embellishment (a too-roboticized vocal here, a too-grating sample squeak there).

On Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1, a satisfying soulful groove crashes to a halt with a cringe-worthy verse involving a model and some bleach (please don't ask). Facts (Charlie Heat Version) is the hardest, most street-ready song on the album, but West's rabid yelping comes across like mugging, particularly when he's rapping about his wife's "Kimojis" and buying a "$10,000 fur for Nori." The spacey 30 Hours glides along pleasantly enough until midway through, when Kanye begins to half-freestyle, mostly ramble to a shambling, meandering, needless conclusion.

Most of Pablo's highlights belong to his all-world feature cast, including names like Rihanna, Chris Brown, the Weeknd and Andre 3000. In fact, two artists directly influenced by West spit laps around him: Chance the Rapper on the gospelly Ultralight Beam, and Lamar on the six-minute, Wu-Tang-flavored No More Parties in L.A.

Pablo would work a lot better if West stripped more of it away. However you feel about the drab, monochromatic sweat wear of his Yeezy fashion line, West has always excelled when applying the same less-is-more aesthetic to song. He plays with ethereal tones and Gothic echoes on the chillout jams Real Friends and Wolves. FML, which features the Weeknd, starts a little dour and ends a little freaky, but the song's slick middle minute or so — the part where Kanye raps instead of sings — sounds like it could have been the genesis of a hit.

And then there's I Love Kanye, an a cappella ode to self-reference that lasts all of 44 seconds. He's baiting us here, playing off his critics' most common complaints: "I miss the old Kanye ... chop-up-the-soul Kanye, set-on-his-goals Kanye / I hate the new Kanye, the bad-mood Kanye."

It feels like a revival of the clever, junk-talking 'Ye from Gold Digger. Throw a beat in there, stretch it out a couple more verses, and no one's going to be missing the old Kanye anymore. He's still around; he's just having a real deep snooze. Someone needs to wake that dude up.

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

Rank the contenders

1. Kendrick Lamar, untitled unmastered.: Sort of a companion piece to 2015's To Pimp a Butterfly, it breaks no additional ground but remains a musically adventurous, lyrically dextrous exploration of fame, spirituality and duality.

2. Kanye West, The Life of Pablo: Managing the dubious feat of feeling both half-baked and overembellished, it's got some interesting ideas and solid features, but West spends too much time chasing too many of his worst instincts.

Review: Uneven but interesting releases from Kendrick Lamar, Kanye 04/14/16 [Last modified: Thursday, April 14, 2016 12:07pm]
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