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Hip-hop superstar Kendrick Lamar. Wikimedia Commons | Courtesy
Hip-hop superstar Kendrick Lamar. Wiki­media Commons | Courtesy

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.