Kendrick Lamar’s ‘untitled unmastered’: Album Review
Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly was sprawling, amorphous, brilliant, overwhelming; it demanded multiple listens and long periods of rumination. From conception to completion, it was a three-year writing and recording process where Lamar brought in a small army of collaborators. And any fans who spent enough time with the record could gather the impression that the tracklist was shaped from a much larger catalog of work we might never hear, like a statue sculpted from a slab of marble. And when we got glimpses of music that didn’t make the cut, it was through three jaw-dropping live TV performances, the final one occurring during Lamar’s epic medley/theater production at the Grammys. After that performance, K. Dot finally assured fans that there was a “chamber” of unreleased material from the TPAB sessions, stating he had “probably close to 10 songs that I’m in love with that I’ll still play and still perform that didn’t make the cut.”
Then last Thursday night (March 3), after rumblings on the usual Twitter grapevine thanks to Top Dawg Entertainment’s head Anthony Tiffith, and LeBron James for some reason, Kendrick released eight tracks out of his treasure trove under the title untitled unmastered., including the three sought-after cuts he performed only as television one-offs. Under normal circumstances, the collection of rarities/b-sides/unreleased material from a particular recording session is only of consequence to superfans and completists. But untitled unmastered. is one of the few exceptions. While not necessarily qualifying as a proper album, it further cements Kendrick as the most important MC working in hip-hop today.
The record has no song titles or credits, no feature lists or album art, just numbered tracks with a corresponding date. Dropping the needle on the first one, the whole project sounds like it’s in media res, as if we are cutting into Kendrick’s stream-of-consciousness creativity, and he’s bursting at the seams with ideas, production flourishes, compositional mastery and thematic richness. But the results aren’t disjointed. In fact, untitled unmastered. sounds and feels monolithic, with each song flowing into the next with the uneasy current that coursed though TPAB. It’s a testament to the vision Kendrick possessed while writing and recording TPAB that all of these songs still coalesce as head trip-worthy sketches of nebulous funk and jazz, cocooned in tight webs of Kendrick’s knotty, thoughtful, socially conscious lyrics.
The first track (“untitled 01 | 08.19.14.”) segues from disturbing acid jazz to what is effectively an apocalyptically fire freestyle from Kendrick (“Atheists for suicide, planes falling out the sky / Trains jumping off the track / mothers yelling ‘he’s alive’”) over quivering strings and arpeggios with quaking bass guitar. “Untitled 03 | 05.28.13.” is the famous song he performed on The Colbert Report back in late 2014. The crackling energy present in that performance dissipates a little on wax, but again, it’s another excellent showcase for completely “in-the-zone” Kendrick: “He put a price on my talent, I hit the bank and withdraw / Hit the bank and withdraw, hit the bank and withdraw / Put myself in the rocket ship and I shot for the stars.” “Untitled 05 | 09.21.2014” is the trippiest song of the bunch, one that could have been most easily imagined as a showstopper on Butterfly. A propulsive bass figure and free-form trumpet send listeners down the rabbit hole, featuring Anna Wise on a smoky vocal performance, and Lamar focusing again on going hard (“Once upon a time I used to go to church and talk to God / Now I’m thinkin’ to myself, hollow tips is all I got / Now I’m drinkin’ by myself, at the intersection, parked”), shirking any of the quirky vocal tics that populated a handful of songs of TPAB.
And then finally, between the glorious, shapeless funk of “untitled 06,” (featuring Cee-Lo, no less), the druggy incantations and funhouse trap vibes of “untitled 07” and the classic Kendrick storytelling/Parliament-inspired strut of “untitled 08” (which, mashed up with “untitled 2,” was performed on the Tonight Show in late January), the set ends without a lull or dip in quality. Over eight songs and a brisk 34 minutes, we drop in on Kendrick simply operating as the best hip-hop artist on the planet, as he almost casually tosses off scraps and odds and ends that put many other artists to shame. untitled unmastered. is a living documentation of Lamar’s process, giving the listener a view of him honing his craft and chipping away at a vision that would soon blossom into an epochal full-length.
Idolator Score: 4.5/5