Kendrick Lamar hasn’t rapped like he did on 2013’s “Control”. Since the infamous verse dropped, he’s maintained a somewhat reserved ferocity in terms of lyrical assault, whether on an album or on stage. But to be honest, he hasn’t really needed to. No one has come close to being an adversary to Kendrick, and so the period of relative silence leading up to 2015’s masterful To Pimp A Butterfly only furthered the power and aura Kendrick emanated whenever he appeared. And now, a year after the ubiquity and cultural impact To Pimp A Butterfly instilled, he’s returned with a musical statement that is more implicit in nature, but just as dominant and focused as his previous three albums.
Every component of this release intends to eschew the standards set with Kendrick Lamar releases. There is no album art. There are no discernible titles besides the dates of performances. The title reflects a series of leftovers and throwaways from the TPAB recording sessions. But once you get past the superficial obtuseness, untitled unmastered. proves it can accomplish much more musically than most major label releases. And even comparing it to the streak of studio albums he’s had, untitled unmastered. illustrates an often overlooked component of Kendrick’s career. Return to Section .80, good kid m.A.A.d. city, or To Pimp A Butterfly, and it’s obvious that there is a glow of positivity that mingles with personal demons. The arc of the characters is what gives all three of these releases a literary component and lasting power, but with untitled unmastered., Kendrick has distanced himself from his storytelling capability. Social issues aren’t given the personal injection that Kendrick feels; rather, he flies over them at rapid-fire speed like a passenger to a worldwide struggle. The opening track is Judgement Day; there are preachers raping children, there are murders, there are suicides, and there is destruction. This level of dark turmoil is something Kendrick has never fully preached and the production feels equally distressed. The backing bass lines rumble with muted calamity, the sparse pianos and constant sirens are reminders of the always looming danger in the world. But just before it ends, the nightmare regresses into a sultry melody that’s eerily calm and a powerful voice prophesies that before the world ends, make sure to count your blessings and repent.
These motifs become the rhapsodic core to untitled unmastered. Instead of pretending to be the demos they are, these songs and moments that constantly fluctuate, running tangentially to the ideals of To Pimp A Butterfly. Expanding on the themes without ever retreading old territories, Kendrick Lamar pieced together his darkest album. These songs and moments obviously wouldn’t have fit with the triumph that was To Pimp A Butterfly, but altogether they offer a a streamlined and voltaic portrait of the rapper Kendrick could be. The molten flourishes of spontaneity are the signs of a genius proving his genius. The second track combines the fluttering pianos and saxophones with the rattling drums coopted from the contemporary. This simple combination is completely blown away with Kendrick’s third verse, where his words are hollow-points, calling out and immediately killing those who oppose himself. What feels like showing off is coupled with dystopian production. Later on over the crashing cymbals of “untitled 05”, Kendrick thinks of splattering the brains of a man. Even with his usual humanity, he pierces further than normal, staying on the mind. This is the Kendrick that we haven’t seen since 2013, lyrically pinpointed and without hesitation.
But that doesn’t mean this album completely covers its tracks as an album of demos. Some moments that have only existed on stage have lost their virility. The drums added to “untitled 3” strip the ambience from the track, muddying the ultimate climax that was first premiered on The Colbert Report. And it is clear that Kendrick has surpassed his contemporaries. However, none of the appearances from guests is enough to condemn the songs on the whole. Jay Rock and Punch certainly feel at home with Kendrick, and appearances from Cee Lo Green and Thundercat boost their respective songs to livelier conclusions. But this album is a statement from Kendrick, from the semi-surprise release to the content to its connection to To Pimp A Butterfly. And the stilted feeling when going from Kendrick Lamar to his guests loses some of the magic.
Kendrick Lamar found his throne on his own path. Conceptual explorations of his personal experiences is what made his music so captivating from the start. And when featured on other’s songs, his technicality bolstered his verses to the top. On Pusha T’s “Nosetalgia”, A$AP Rocky’s “1 Train”, and Big Sean’s “Control”, Kendrick Lamar forced the comparison to be made. He forced the audience to take notice to the raw talent that he still maintains today. But in 2016, there’s no reason for a comparison to be made; he’s on his own level, essentially untouchable when albums are compared. But that hasn’t stopped people from making these needless comparisons. Just look at the countless observations fans and critics have heaved onto untitled unmastered. and Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. Unrelated albums, except being made by the biggest artists in the genre at the moment. The connection between the two is not there, but that hasn’t stopped the musical world from arguing a moot point. Well allow me to add another needless comparison: when Kanye West made his victory lap in hip-hop, he toured Graduation in arenas and hyped up a forced feud with 50 Cent to promote a grandiose moment for the relationship between popular music and hip-hop. Kendrick Lamar’s victory lap achieved more with a few late night performances and an album of b-sides.
– T. Pennington