Review: Kendrick Lamar's Untitled Unmastered

For such a nondescript work, Untitled Unmastered is anything but.
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For such a nondescript work, Untitled Unmastered is anything but.

FOR SUCH A NONDESCRIPT WORK, Untitled Unmastered is anything but. Filled to the brim with ideas and musical color, these eight songs aren’t deserving of the treatment they’ve received. No titles, no care, not even an identifiable cover—and yet, to almost any other artist not named Kendrick Lamar, these are career-defining tracks. To him, they’re outtakes, B-sides, one-off performance pieces. A testament to hip-hop’s undeniable spearhead, Untitled Unmastered does away with excessive decadence. There is no flashiness on its facade, nor no grand showing as to how good the music is, it’s simply a collection of eight tracks recorded during the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions that demands to be lauded. Throughout  Untitled Unmastered, Lamar makes us constantly aware of the growing distance between him and those around him, taking shots at trailing rappers, signifying the coming Judgement Day, all while unraveling philosophical anomalies found nowhere else in popular hip-hop.

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The demand for attention has risen steeply in the age of the Internet, where those on the frisk of notoriety call dead rappers bozos and wallow in tired, chauvinistic  tropes, while those already endowed with superstardom resort to memes for exposure. The standstill that Kendrick has caused in hip-hop communities with Untitled Unmastered has only proven the worth of bonafide greatness. After the initial awe of eight new songs was lifted, more spoke on behalf of “Untitled 03” and racial profiling, or “Untitled 08” and the problems with income and happiness than anything surrounding the songs themselves. Kendrick gets people talking about movements, not trends. There’s even a clear indicator found on the small, experimental “Untitled 04” that tells us exactly where Kendrick, and the HiiPower movement, believes worth resides. “Head is the answer, head is the future” a voice cries out, all while Kendrick whispers headily about those with the devilish intention of dissuading the youth. Money, religion, or the government aren’t going to solve yours, or the world’s, problems, but the head, the knowledge, the perception of wanting to know more, will. While a clear story (as found on To Pimp A Butterfly) isn’t present here, the impactful messages of disowning ignorance are.

On “Untitled 07” a list of vices runs through the intro. Love, drugs, fame, chains, juice, crew, hate are just some of the things that “won’t get you high as this.” What’s this? As indicated by the declarative “levitate, levitate, levitate, levitate,” it’s wisdom in the face of incognizance. The fact that Kendrick can make a certified banger, with a flow that’s imperative to its success, while simultaneously boasting about something that isn’t frivolous, is a showing to his talent and dexterity. Those who need something that bumps in the whip found a loss when searching through To Pimp A Butterfly’s dense corridors, and now that “Untitled 07”, and even “Untitled 01” or “02”, have arrived, the criticism that Lamar’s content-focused bars and intricately-layered funk collages downplay replay-value can be put to rest. This project is a fun, fun listen. From the nasally-rapped “Untitled 02”, with a creaky old-timey piano engulfed by bass, to “Untitled 06”, with intimate strings and brass that sound, unbelievably, like a Jim O’Rourke production, to “Untitled 01”, and it’s alarming G-Funk, complete with cataclysmic percussion, Untitled Unmastered provides a spectacular contrast of sounds gallivanting under the same roof.

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Despite only being 34 minutes long, less than half the running time of the monolithic To Pimp A ButterflyUntitled Unmastered still presents unmistakable cohesion. There are ups and downs, sometimes, often in fact, within the same song. Failing to escape the two minute mark, “Untitled 04” still holds some drastic changes within it, thanks in large part to its minimal structure. Tongue-twisted whispers from Lamar fit under catapulting voices, all before the production, with cartoonish synths and demeaning bass, turns into a cheesy 80s slasher flick, if only for a moment. The same can be said for other tracks here, like “Untitled 01”, beginning with a sexual rendezvous, finishing with a pompous bridge addressing heedless youth. The most glaring, ill-advised outlier of this tactic sees the entire second half of “Untitled 07” devolve into an acoustic set of kooky banter. It nearly reaches four minutes and stalls the momentum profusely. Not that it’s bad, just unnecessary, and if it wasn’t for the tongue-in-cheek aspect of it all it would veer dangerously close to Speeding Bullet 2 Heaven territory. The lighter elements it fosters does allow for a more seamless transition into “Untitled 08” though, an upbeat groove that sees the worth in life.

Another feature of Untitled Unmastered is the addendum in each song title, that being (presumably) the date each track was recorded. Every piece of art has this date—what meaning does Kendrick find in them? As a look to the creation of To Pimp A Butterfly, it’s interesting, but as a look to Lamar’s talents, it’s invaluable. The famous, and lyrically complex “Untitled 03” was recorded only a mere few months after good kid, m.A.A.d. city, showing the state of evolution Kendrick was engaged in—not just his lyrics, but his production. Furthermore, if you picked contrasting tracks here based on feel they’d surprisingly likely be recorded together. “Untitled 01” and “04”; “Untitled 02” and “06”; and “Untitled 05” and “08” were all done within a two weeks of each other, respectively. Likely just coincidence that sonically they’re all opposites, but it does show Kendrick’s headspace at the time and gives us a glimpse at a visionary at work, jumping from one mood and setting to another in a week’s time. We just now have the question. With Kanye West still waiting to show us these 80 alleged Kendrick and Young Thug collabs, is this the direction we want to see artists going, revealing their vault works to please a feverish fanbase? With a Renaissance man like Kendrick Lamar, the answer is yes, with anyone else, the conclusion is still up in the air. A MINUS

A version of this review appeared on Brian’s blog, Dozens of Donuts.