After a year of artistic triumph, Kendrick Lamar delves deeper into his thoughts and anxieties on an album that is anything but a lazy victory lap.
Under normal circumstances, there would be no reason to get excited over untitled unmastered. After all, this is just a collection of leftover songs, an odds-and-ends collection that may have made for a cool mixtape. But not every rapper is Kendrick Lamar, the undisputed best rapper in the world right now. Coming after the tremendous To Pimp a Butterfly, one wouldn’t have expected Kendrick to come back so fast with new music. After all, Butterfly had a lengthy gestation period following his breakthrough, good kid M.A.A.D. City. Yet here we are, a year after Butterfly took the music world by storm, and Kendrick has presented a surprisingly cohesive collection of leftover tracks. While untitled unmastered isn’t the same sort of daring artistic statement as its immediate predecessor, its insular feel highlights what makes Kendrick such a unique talent.
In releasing this album in a surprise fashion, one could argue that Kendrick is deliberately lowering the stakes for himself here. Furthermore, much of the material on untitled unmastered clearly occupies the same musical and lyrical headspace of its predecessor, and anyone who followed Kendrick’s talk-show performances will likely recognize a few of these songs. Rather than cast-offs, though, these tracks feel more like missing pieces, a lost link between the insular world of Kendrick’s Compton and the wider world in which he was uncomfortably thrust. They encapsulate fear, anger, grief, and hope in an open and direct way.
Like its predecessor, untitled unmastered deals with Kendrick’s questions about what it means to be young, famous and black in a world where being young and black is a sadly dangerous proposition. Kendrick tries in vain to look for answers on “untitled 03", but different philosophies and modes of thought offer him no comfort (especially not the white capitalist intent on commodifying and selling Kendrick’s talent for a tidy profit). In some ways, untitled unmastered gives us an even more liberated Kendrick Lamar: free of the constraints of the typical album and the demands of crafting a deliberate narrative, Kendrick gives us more concentrated bursts of thoughtful anger.
Anger may not be the right word, though. Frustration may be the more appropriate word. In this, untitled unmastered is more of a full post-script to Butterfly as opposed to a collection of rejects. The album opens with Kendrick asking for salvation, wondering if he’s done enough in his life to earn it. This plea is immediately followed by indulgence on “untitled 02” as Kendrick laments how his grand message fell on the ears of people who want him to buy shit, enjoy his fame and stop thinking about life. That core conflict between embracing earthly pleasures and looking for something more important is accentuated by the foreboding G-funk and jazz samples that permeate the album. At times, especially on the sinewy “untitled 05", it feels as if Kendrick is deliberately undercutting his music, shouting aggressively over smooth bass and drums to remind himself and us that things aren’t as okay as we think.
Very little about untitled unmastered is polished: one track fades out with an extended, demo-quality outtake of Kendrick and his band in the studio, and repeated chants of “Pimp pimp! Hooray!” are the only things tying many of these songs into a whole. Yet this doesn’t have the ramshackle, hastily-assembled feel of, say, The Life of Pablo. untitled may have an amount of unfinished, scattered ideas, yet it still feels essential and vital. There’s no narrative, and the music may not be as rich as we know it can be, but Kendrick Lamar can still command attention like no other. Even in this concentrated, pared-down form, the music of Kendrick Lamar doesn’t cease to amaze.