Kendrick Lamar just released a new record, “untitled unmastered,” and it is a great listen. The quality of the music onboard the LP is astonishingly layered: every instrumental lavish and fleshed out and every lyric codified to mean three things at the same time. Even though it was drafted from B-sides and incomplete song sketches, the album feels remarkably filled in and complete as an experience.
From his debut record to last year’s multiple-Grammy-nominated “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar has been consistent in just how, well, consistent in the amount of time and effort he appears to place into the music.
The interludes and spoken-word mantras of “Butterfly” become celebratory shout segments on “untitled,” with every appearance of Kendrick hooting “Pimp pimp, hooray!” serving as a reminder of dedication to craft and thought toward how the music feels for the listener.
The album has already received accolades from Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, Consequence of Sound and other outlets for its impeccable musical quality. It is terrific.
However, we’re not here to talk about Lamar as a stand-alone. Instead, his latest effort is an important point of reference, to break down how creativity and ego can come together to make or break a work of art. King Kendrick masterfully avoids what could only be called Kanye-Sickness: the illness which occurs when artistry is overtaken by Artistry (the attempt to look like an artist).
Kanye West is someone dealing with an awful lot of Kanye-Sickness. His newest record, “The Life of Pablo,” was released about one month before Lamar’s, is a hodge-podge of multiple ideas. Where “untitled” carries an intentional improvisational looseness, “Pablo” does not carry much feeling of forethought.
The album received numerous name changes before its release and was put out exclusively on Tidal, a streaming service he owns. You cannot buy it.
Not only that, but he’s said he hasn’t even finished the album, and is still mixing some of the songs and replacing them for streaming (for example, the mix on Taylor Swift-dissing track “Famous”).
The album comes at the tail-end of a songwriting peak for West. Just like Lamar, he has walked a golden path of critically-acclaimed records, from “The College Dropout” to “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” All of this success was built atop a wave of bold and brash confidence, creating a much-lauded portrait of a brilliant, misunderstood iconoclast. This act of projection went to such lengths that Kanye implying he was a Christ figure wasn’t far enough – he had to literally name an album, “Yeezus.”
And, like one would expect from a structure put together on a wave, eventually it crashes with it. This is where Kanye-Sickness comes in.
Let’s define this disease: the absolute intersection of egoism and brilliance. When an artist goes far enough into the self and loses sight of their creative process, they are dealing with a lot of Kanye-Sickness (see: Kanye West’s Twitter feed).
If one exhibits too much creativity and not enough confidence, that person is cured of Kanye-Sickness altogether. For reference, think of what kind of music white bread would play if it was human, or a Kings of Leon album.
Kanye is too Kanye-Sick now – but he’s not alone, and lately the disease is hitting some of the music industry’s finest.
Kid Cudi’s latest output, “Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven,” is a stark reminder that the man once responsible for such radio smashes as “Day n’ Night” and “Pursuit of Happiness” is now making slow moans over Nirvana-lite grunge guitar with a metronome plinking in the background.
Just like Kanye, Cudi built his position in the rap canon as a unique “loner,” a misunderstood figure with a kinda-okay singing voice when he wanted to use it. He is always the “man on the moon,” isolating himself from the outside world.
Cudi’s early music showed promise through its artistic portrayal of this figure, but now there is no distance – he’s gone so far away from who he’s playing to that it seems he doesn’t care how the music sounds.
From his first rock album, “WZRD,” he’s shown no signs of slowing down his descent into blandness by way of strongly wanting to be Frank Black of the Pixies.
Elsewhere, Miley Cyrus is recording sex-themed psychedelic-trap tunes with The Flaming Lips under the name the “Dead Petz,” releasing songs satiated with cheap reverb-laden synths and cringe-worthy lyrics (see: “f**k me so you stop baby talkin’”).
She and her Petz are an active rebuttal to her Hannah Montana days. Their public debut was on the MTV Music Choice Awards, playing a song with the opening phrase, “Yeah, I smoke pot.” The only reason this music seems to exist appears to be to contribute to Cyrus’ own public image.
Even Jay Z’s last record, “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” made his legendary rap career feel like a memory How does he describe his wife, one of the most envied and successful women in pop music? “Sleeping every night next to Mona Lisa/The modern day version with better features” – poetics! Jay took mediocre raps over trap beats and tried to pass it off as Artistry, and even co-opted Maria Abramovic (“The Artist is Present”) to make “Picasso Baby” seem like a statement.
The only statement made was as empty and hollow as a Donald Trump tweet: all bluster and no higher thought. Ultimately, the determining factor as to whether an artist can resist Kanye-Sickness enough to make a masterful song, while carrying enough ego-blessed confidence to have resonance with an audience, is effort.
The difference between Lamar’s “untitled” and West’s “Life of Pablo,” both being altogether unfinished works, is the amount of time and care placed into making the album whole and the art complete and satisfying. The former was produced through the creative process as odds-and-ends – as Lamar put it on Twitter, the songs are “demos.”
Yet the project uses interludes and field recordings to carry a solid listen the whole way through. By contrast, “Pablo” is still incomplete according to West himself, existing in an ooze state, as semi-complete musical plasma.
This could easily be attributable to the idea of “Kanye being Kanye,” in the same vein that fans make excuses for other artists to take nosedives into Kanye-Sickness denial. After “WZRD,” I must have had the notion of “Cudi being Cudi” go through my mind at least ten times. The Cyrus-Lips collaboration sounded cool on paper, but once my headphones began to play its material form, I lost hope: Miley was just being Miley.
“X being X” in turn is the colloquial form of Kanye-Sickness. It is not art as exemplified through an artist’s personality, but instead the opposite. It is an artist’s personality exemplified through artistic expression…and that’s not worth much praise.
To compare: if you overheard someone saying the loved a Nickelback album because it was “Nickelback being Nickelback,” you’d question their taste in music, as well as probably everything else. You would not laud Nickelback for “truly channeling the persona of Nickelback in an incredible, fluid fashion,” or something similarly pretentious.
When an album comes out that throws a full frontal assault of an individual’s artistry at the listener and avoids the pothole of self-indulgence – that is when we should give high praise out of our pockets.