Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered.
By: Steven Norwalk
Given that Kendrick Lamar’s third album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” was almost universally regarded as one of the most important albums of 2015, an addendum hardly feels necessary. Yet, here we have “untitled unmastered.,” an eight-song surprise album comprised of unreleased tracks recorded during the sessions for “TPAB.” Like its predecessor, “untitled unmastered.” is dense and complex, fitting more ideas into its 34 minutes than some rappers fit into their entire careers. It is a testament to the quality of these songs that, instead of feeling superfluous, like so many other outtake albums, “untitled unmastered.” feels essential. The album might be untitled and unmastered, but it plays like a finished product.
As with much of Lamar’s work, “untitled unmastered.” simultaneously looks inward and outward, tying together Kendrick’s personal struggles with the injustices of a broken world. On album opener “untitled 01,” Lamar turns a vivid depiction of the apocalypse into both a harrowing self-examination and a blistering critique of hedonism and hypocrisy. Later, in the first part of “untitled 07,” Lamar repeats the word “levitate” like a mantra, exhorting himself to rise above base desires and challenging his listeners to do the same. In these songs and much of the rest of the album, Kendrick manages to merge introspection with social commentary to create thematically cohesive wholes.
One of the album’s most stirring verses comes near the beginning of “untitled 05.” In it, Kendrick inhabits the character of a man en route to murder an enemy. The man is troubled, inebriated and determined, but upon arriving at his destination and seeing his soon-to-be-victim’s son jump into the arms of his father, he drives away instead of carrying out his mission. Through his efficiently and impeccably constructed verse, Kendrick asserts that redemption can come from simply recognizing another person’s humanity, from seeing an enemy as a human being and not a target. The subtle characterization and superb storytelling of “untitled 05” are prime examples of the empathy and compassion that have come to distinguish Lamar’s lyrics.
Kendrick’s profound lyricism is complemented by the albums’ jazzy musical arrangements. Like “TPAB,” “untitled unmastered.” utilizes live instrumentation, provided by first-class musicians like Thundercat and Terrace Martin, to create its brooding funk atmosphere. On “untitled 02,” an anguished saxophone and chaotic piano keys soundtrack Lamar’s weariness and frustration, while on “untitled 06,” Kendrick and Cee-Lo Green celebrate individuality over a smooth bossa nova groove. Though the album’s music is intricate, adventurous and enthralling, it never distracts from Lamar’s poetry.
At several points throughout the album, Kendrick ironically chants “Pimp Pimp Hooray!” Delivered with unsettling sarcasm, the words reflect that, while “To Pimp a Butterfly” was an extraordinary success as an album, there is no cause for celebration yet. The chant is a reminder that the racism and violence it denounced, as well as the inner turmoil of its creator, have not been exterminated. They remain as potent a problem today as they were in early 2015. “untitled unmastered.” is unfinished because Kendrick Lamar’s work is unfinished. Though it may only be a collection of outtakes, “untitled unmastered.” is a statement of its own, proving itself to be just as compelling as the album that spawned it.