An Inevitable Side-By-Side Comparison Of The New Kendrick Lamar & Kanye West Albums
2015 isn’t even three months old and we’ve already seen two major rap albums get peculiar releases: Kanye West‘s The Life Of Pablo and Kendrick Lamar‘s untitled unmastered. Because of the close timing and shared genre of the projects, it’s nearly impossible to avoid comparing them. And when you do, it’s the contrasts that first jump out.
Kendrick’s uu is cohesive and considered, while Kanye’s TLOP is a flailing hydra of impulses. Kendrick’s displays lyrical prowess and has Things To Say, Kanye’s features the clunkiest bars of his career and caters to Moments over matter. Kendrick’s dropped with little warning on a school night, and it’ll be released on CD/vinyl formats. Kanye’s fueled a months-long campaign and sold out MSG, and probably will never get a physical release.
But Pablo and untitled aren’t opposites, they’re opposite manifestations of the same forces, two unfinished portraits of hip-hop artists consumed by a vision and working out the kinks of that vision in public during a time that’s fraught with racial tension. And it’s not so absurd to think there was some creative osmosis between the two authors after they toured together in 2013 and collaborated on “No More Parties In L.A.”
So we’ve put these two singular projects side-by-side to find the overlap, just like when we compared Yeezus and The 20/20 Experience a couple years ago. This type of rundown may have been inevitable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not useful when it comes to unpacking these offerings.
I’ve gone over the Pablo Twitter Experience ad nauseam, but as exhausting as West’s tweetstorms have been over the past few months, he managed to make the album a mass shared experience again, without resorting to the “rush to listen first, together” surprise release element. Meanwhile, Kendrick stoked Twitter hype with three television performances of unreleased “one-off” songs. That hype peaked when LeBron frigging James demanded Lamar release studio versions of the songs, which is apparently how we got where we are with uu.
2. They Listened To The Kids
Kanye’s children North and Saint are credited as creative consultants on TLOP. Kendrick did him one better, enlisting the beat-making services of the five-year-old son of Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz.
3. (Purposely) Lackluster Artwork
Each of their previous albums featured sort of radical album covers. The follow-ups got blunt, monochromatic covers that direct the listener right to the music and invite “I could’ve done that” remarks from Twitter geniuses.
4. Unsavory Characters
5. Unfinished Business
Kanye tinkered with Pablo up until the night it was released, adding in some lines about his Madison Square Garden album launch at the last minute. And then after it dropped he kept tinkering (see: the TBD status of “Wolves”). Likewise, Kendrick describes untitled as “Demos from To Pimp A Butterfly. In Raw Form. Unfinished.” This work-in-progress approach is confirmed/emphasized by instances of gibberish placeholder lyrics on both albums (“30 Hours” and “untitled 07,” for example). They both lifted the curtain on the tediousness of the creative process.
6. They Actually Did Wake Up Like This
“Look at my flaws, look at my flaws / Look at my imperfections in awe.” That’s Kendrick on “untitled 06,” which could be the thesis statement for Kanye’s latest album and really his entire career.
7. Reclaiming What’s Theirs
Like jazz, the blues and rock before it, rap was long ago co-opted and whitewashed by mainstream culture. But in recent years there’s at least been a discussion about it in the mainstream, coinciding with the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. And it was at this crucial moment that Kanye and Kendrick plotted a retrenchment to and resurrection of traditional black music: gospel for Kanye on Pablo, jazz for Kendrick on the untitled seeds that would go on to inform the “overwhelming blackness” of TPAB.
8. Body & Mind
Both dudes cultivated a high-low cognitive dissonance on these releases by reflecting our basest instincts and our most divine incantations. uu starts with a pillow talk monologue, and “head is the answer, head is the future” is a recurring double entendre on the album. These references are buried among Lamar’s lyrics about God, self-doubt and some pretty dire observations about race and society. Kanye also balanced the profane with the prayerful: Moments after the godly “Ultralight Beam,” while swaddled in a gospel sample, West raps about a model’s bleached asshole, pointing out the human dichotomy in the simplest, starkest terms.
9. A Long & Winding Road
It may have felt like we got a pair of slapdash, rushed releases, but they were a long time coming. Based on the untitled unmastered. song labels, we now know Kendrick was exploring the knotty jazz sounds of To Pimp A Butterfly as early as May 28, 2013 — just seven months after releasing his breakthrough album. And we know Kanye had been working on *a* Yeezus follow-up — if not *this* Yeezus follow-up — since late 2013, plus the “No More Parties” beat had been in his hands since the MBDTF sessions in 2010. So they may seem tossed-off, but these two projects were as meticulously crafted as anything the rappers have put out.
What other similarities or inversions do you see in the albums? Let us know in the comments.