Content: levitate, levitate, levitate, levitate
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Content: levitate, levitate, levitate, levitate

Kendrick Lamar and the recently-formed duo of Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz turned last Friday into a celebration with the respective releases of two surprise albums. The albums share little in common, but give us an opportunity to re-evaluate three rappers at distinct stages of their careers: Kendrick on top, 2 Chainz perpetually hovering around relevancy and Wayne nearly a decade removed from his peak.

It’s been a minute since anyone held the “Best Rapper Alive” title as definitively as Kendrick does now. To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB), for all the struggling it requires of its audience — and that album occasionally lags — is titanic and asserted Kendrick as something more than the finest, most creative rapper since Andre 3000. His voice has terrific weight, bringing hype to even a B-sides collection (which untitled unmastered certainly is).

Evaluating this small record in comparison to the expanse of Lamar’s last release requires me to admit that I have an aversion toward jazz production on hip hop albums. Not to throw shade at The Roots or TPAB, but live bands on rap records tend not to do it for me. With that caveat added, untitled unmastered delivers a lot of what was necessarily missing from TPAB. Because of its ambition, TPAB ditched the ease and ramble of tracks like “Backseat Freestyle” and “Hol’ Up.” Although it’s unlikely and unwise for Kendrick to retreat back into his former style, he sounds like he’s having a bit more fun on untitled unmastered, inviting the listener to share in it. Kendrick went so deep into himself on his last album that some of his tracks were rendered impressively impenetrable. The joking Kendrick we’d grown to love was absent, banished to his many earth-destroying features, from “Vice City” to “No More Parties in LA.”

But Funny Kendrick has returned! The album’s standout song, the eight-minute semi-opus “untitled 7,” features just about every version of Kendrick and many of his voices. The final of three parts finds Kendrick rapping, singing and gabbing. He’s laughing, and it’s a thrill to know the evils of Lucy occasionally give him a moment’s rest.

Kendrick has become such a cultural force that the conversation frequently forgets to commend the quality of his actual rapping. His mastery over the form sometimes makes the underlying beats irrelevant, as he often doesn’t even bother to fit his bars to the contours of the production. Beyond the complexity and courage of Kendrick’s music lies technical mastery that alone makes his work charming. Thank god for LeBron.

The less demanded return of 2 Chainz on Collegrove brought the most joyous news of the week: Wayne’s back! Many have forgotten that Lil Wayne once prolifically ruled the world with wit and grace. But post-prison Wayne has been a consistently depressing shell of his former self, and I never recovered from the decline of the greatest rapper of my middle school experience.

Rap is less fun when Wayne struggles. Hearing him coming out firing on “Smell Like Money” gave me a unique rush. I couldn’t stop smiling. Wayne knows exactly where he’s going in his opening verse, exhibiting the the free-form control for which he was once known. Then, Wayne pivots and evokes Young Thug, who may or may not have tried to murder him in real life, attempting a rap-scat on the ebullient “Bounce.” Wayne never needs to evolve his style: it’s already iconic and canonized. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to hear him put the entire weight of his voice behind a verse. It’s a testament to his legacy and durability that those who he influenced are now influencing him in return.

Wayne’s decision to latch his comeback to the most middling rapper of our time is a curious one. I can’t remember a song in which 2 Chainz has had the best verse, but the record does not suffer from Chainz’s inflexibility. The first half of the album is loaded with hooks. A lot of them sound like they could have been made anytime after 2004, but the duo’s charisma and help from producers of the moment Mike Will Made It and Metro Boomin’ (who seems to trust them) keep the record fresh start to finish. Wayne rightfully may not have Kendrick’s clout, but he’s committed to unburying the love you still have for Tha Carter III deep down in your soul where 2008 lives.

March 11, 2016

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