09 Mar Music Recommendation: Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered.
I could not be any happier with this release.
With the gluttony of think-pieces being consumed on the Internet following the surprising and possibly spontaneous release of this new Kendrick Lamar project, I felt it necessary to get my general stance on this album out of the way first-thing. Music writers and reviewers had been working feverishly throughout the weekend to consolidate their thoughts, digest these new tunes, and pump out some form of content to insert their voice into the conversation surrounding Kendrick’s Untitled Unmastered album before someone else says it first. As an avid listener of Mr. Lamar’s – and possible Stan as well if I could detach myself from the negative connotation that comes with that word – I’d like to be forthright in saying that I do believe this is a fan-project. Now, Kendrick Lamar fans come in all shapes, sizes and colors these days; but rest assured, this in not another article diving into how to listen, enjoy, or even view this album. In a lot of ways, this is the anti-think-piece. I’m just going to try my very best to capture my auditory experience in word, and communicate why I couldn’t be any happier with it as clearly as possible.
I think it’s safe to say at this point that if you listen to hip hop, then you know Kendrick Lamar. K-Dot first blew up in the wake of his “Swimming Pools (Drank)” single, and the concept album that featured that hit-song, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. It was a conscious track about how people tend to drown the internal and external struggles with alcohol, but Kendrick disguised the song with a trendy instrumental and a real party-vibe to great success. While GKMC could be viewed as a pop-rap record from a distance, what Kendrick was able to do lyrically as he created a tangible storyline about his come-up and escape from the city of Compton took this project to the next level and made it a cinematic kind of experience. The widespread acclaim that followed allowed Kendrick the notoriety and respect in the industry to take a monumental step forward with his sound for his next record, To Pimp A Butterfly. The acid jazz and G-funk displayed in the beats on this project made for some truly unprecedented and groundbreaking production that served as an impeccable backdrop for his socially aware and thought-provoking lyricism. The way he was able to capture raw emotion and communicate his frustration on TPAB was awe-inspiring and it put Kendrick Lamar in the same breath as some of rap music’s all-time greats.
The kind of roll Kendrick is on right now is comparable to a Hall of Fame athlete in his or her prime; reminiscent of Miguel Cabrera’s triple crown season and back-to-back MVP awards in baseball, and a lot like Stephen Curry’s current streak of excellence in the NBA. Presumably at the peak of his career, Kendrick is in the kind of creative head-space that no one in the game right now can match, and that dominance he’s displayed has bled over into his subsequent live performances and this new project here.
Untitled Unmastered is comprised of demo quality songs that echo the sentiment set forth on To Pimp A Butterfly, but has no issues standing up as it’s own project. We can debate whether this is an EP, commercial mixtape, or full-fledged album until we’re blue in the face (see “untitled 08” to find humor in that pun), but Kendrick was very clear as to what the project was going to be since it was announced. From the song titles, or lackthereof, to the plain black/green cover and unfinished aesthetic, we knew as listeners that we were receiving a handful of To Pimp a Butterfly leftovers; however, one’s familiarity with these tracks hangs on just how well you’ve been paying attention to Kendrick’s live presence following that seminal record. He began a series of TV performances featuring untitled, seemingly brand-new songs on The Colbert Report, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, and the 58th GRAMMY Awards; all of which appear on Untitled Unmastered in some form. The Colbert performance appears here as “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013“, the final song of the Grammy performance as “untitled 05 | 09.21.2014“, and the Fallon performance as “untitled 08 | 09.06.2014” and partially “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014” as well. The songs were re-imagined and finished for live television, but still hold a tremendous amount of weight here as the preliminary steps in Kendrick’s creative process. It’s the same kind of transparency I commended Kanye West for in my last music article, but this one was not billed as a finished product. Instead, Kendrick gave us the masterpiece first and then the look behind the scenes on how it came to be – just listen to Kendrick carry a tune on “untitled 07” in what seems like an intimate songwriting session. The sound on Untitled Unmastered is raw and unpolished, but no less powerful in what it is trying to accomplish. Kendrick raps over these rough grimy beats and features a wide range of song topics, vocal registers, and flow patterns. He even bites at Drake’s signature cadence he used heavily on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late at the end of “untitled 02”.
The instrumentation on this album is very much in the same vein as To Pimp a Butterfly as well with some stellar bass grooves provided by Thundercat, meandering and trippy jazz flute runs, and bursts of horn embellishments; but this time, over a lot of rubbery beats, some trap flavored high-hats, and sub-bass bumps like on tracks 2 and 7. Kendrick also gets some guest vocals from Cee Lo Green on “untitled 06” and Anna Wise on “untitled 01” and 03; as well as fellow members of the TDE family SZA on 04, Punch on 05, and Jay Rock on both 04 and 05. In terms of lyricism, Kendrick holds nothing back with some of his most politically and religiously charged tracks to date, and still is able to display some incredibly vivid imagery like the apocalyptic visions of planes falling out of the sky and trains jumping the tracks on the album’s opener.
Untitled Unmastered in another dense, heady, and captivating release from King Kendrick, but if you were not a fan before, I doubt this will sway you in that direction. It is less accessible to the average listener than To Pimp a Butterfly was and nowhere near as fleshed out from an artistic vision standpoint; however, if you did enjoy that record, the two go hand in hand. The material on Untitled Unmastered may fit in with TPAB sonically and thematically, but not necessarily cinematically. With the songs on the last album perfectly interwoven between lines and stanzas of Kendrick’s thesis poem, it makes sense why these tracks were not included or finished. The online publication DJ booth called this release “the director’s cut of TPAB” which I believe is the the most accurate way to describe it. Rather than viewing it as a completely separate record, I see it as a series of deleted scenes that could fit into the narrative of the finished product, but are not totally necessary to telling the story. Depending on what you come to K-Dot for, you can choose to take it or leave it; but to put it simply, Untitled Unmastered gave me eight new Kendrick Lamar tracks I didn’t have last week that I do have now, and for that I’m thankful.