The unannounced release of “untitled unmastered.” from hip-hop superstar Kendrick Lamar was a surprise gift to fans who’d assumed it would be years before Lamar followed his 2015’s Grammy-winning “To Pimp a Butterfly” with new music.
“Untitled unmastered.” fills the void less than a year after the last release, but it also offers something new in Lamar’s discography: unlike “Butterfly” or 2012’s “good kid, m.A.A.d. City,” this is, perhaps, music cut for listening, not dissecting.
The album’s eight tracks are only numbered with recording dates (hence “untitled”), and don’t cohere thematically as tightly as his previous albums do. “Butterfly’s” long bathetic spoken word interludes and obvious dialogue with Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and black American culture, or “good kid’s” drama of sin and baptism in Compton, California, are missing here.
This doesn’t mean that “untitled unmastered.” suffers from lack of polish or consideration. These unfinished demos from recording “Butterfly” are total musical accomplishment, and don’t lyrically downplay the social commentary for which Lamar has become so well known.
For example, “untitled 01” starts the album with jazzy, dreamlike tones under a deep voice addressing some sort of undefined female partner — “little lamb” — before Lamar’s voice begins rapping and prophesying an apocalypse taken from St John: “Life no longer infinity this was the final calling / No birds chirping or flying, no dogs barking / We all nervous and crying, moving in caution / In disbeliefs our beliefs the reason for all this.”
Classically, Lamar’s apocalypse brings destruction and confusion along with the end of war and hate as the judgment begins and many attempt to cling to the world. The “symphony / Thunder like number four” sounds (a reference to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, Movement No. 4, “Thunderstorm”), marking “war from heaven” and Lamar hears: “What have you did for me,” forcing him to scramble for his “resume” with predictable results: “confident I had glory in all my past endeavors / Close my eyes, pray to God that I live forever / Dark skies, fire and brimstone, some of us sent home / Some of us never did wrong but still went to hell.”
The solution Lamar finds recalls his first album: “Crucifix, tell me you can fix” and as the darkness drops again, he addresses a sardonic challenge to repent at his “Backpedaling Christians settling for forgiveness.
Later songs on “untitled” are equally confessional. The second track comes from Lamar — “Stuck inside the belly of the beast / Can you please pray for me?” — as he struggles with his double nature torn between his fame and his humble origins, between phone calls to “Top” (his label’s CEO), and to God. “Untitled 03” is one of the most polished songs, featuring vocals from Anna Wise and saxophone from Terrence Martin (both are featured on many of the “untitled” tracks) as Lamar plays racial stereotypes off each other in a long verse that culminates with an indictment of white executives for their exploitation of black talent. “Untitled 07,” the longest song on the 34-minute album, split into three parts and apparently put together piecemeal over years of recording, is where the “unmastered” part of the title becomes apparent, with sections of unedited studio conversation between musical sections.
Musically, “untitled” is clean and fun to listen to, more testimonies to the talent Lamar commands. Lamar’s collaborators give the entire album bright and vibrant music, especially on tracks like “untitled 06,” with its chorus from Cee-Lo Green and jazz and soul instrumentals. For fans of Lamar’s music, “untitled unmastered.” is a welcome addition to the sound of one of the most talented and interesting writers and performers in popular music today.