by Patrick Williams
Compton rapper Kendrick Lamer surprised just about everyone March 4 with his new release, untitled unmastered., which, if it really wasn’t mastered, has a surprisingly crisp sound. Each of the album’s eight tracks are titled with the number on which they appear in the tracklist, and with dates. Some people speculated that the dates signify when the songs were written, and others said those are the dates when they were recorded. Dating as far back as May 2013, they all relate in some aspect to the recording sessions for Lamar’s January 2015 release, To Pimp a Butterfly. For better or for worse, these previously unreleased tracks give a glimpse into Lamar and his collaborators’ writing and recording processes while working on the album.
Many Lamar fans recognized a few tracks here, including “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013.,” which he premiered on The Colbert Report in December 2014; “untitled 08 | 9.06.2014.,” which he performed on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon in January; and “untitled 05 | 09.21.2014.,” which he teased at the 58th Annual Grammy Awards in February. At this point it’s unclear if he planned to release these songs in a studio format in the first place, if it’s something he recently decided on his own or if he was persuaded into doing it by someone else. (It’s rumored that a LeBron James tweet might have had something to do with it.)
It’s not surprising that these tracks are from the To Pimp a Butterfly sessions. The recurring call and response of “Pimp pimp! (Hooray!)” references the 2015 album directly. Also, many of the songs tend to go by the same formula at To Pimp a Butterfly, with poetry, singing, free jazz horns and other intricate textures at their beginnings, followed by Lamar delivering his first verse or two for that particular song. He and guest singer Anna Wise convey the technique on “untitled 05 | 09.21.2014.,” on which they sing, “Somebody said you bumped your head and bled the floor / Jumped into a pit of flames and burned to coal / Drowned inside the lake outside, away you flow.” It’s momentous, but then Lamar then trades off verses with Jay Rock, whose quality lyrics are overshadowed by his monotonous delivery. Most of the features on To Pimp a Butterfly, by comparison, felt less stale.
It’s also not surprising that these songs weren’t quite ready for the album. The three parts of “untitled 07 | 2014 – 2016” make the song feel disjointed, especially with the studio banter between them. The conversational third part, while intimate in its exuberance, takes away from the directness of the first part, where Lamar raps, “Life won’t get you high like this here, no / He won’t get you high like this here, no / She won’t get you high like this here, no / ‘For Free?’ won’t get you high like this here, no.” He’s again referencing To Pimp a Butterfly, this time specifically the highly experimental and poetic track, “For Free? (Interlude).” Simultaneously, the first part of “untitled 07 | 2014 – 2016” has a gangster rap lilt that was largely absent from To Pimp a Butterfly, but which defined 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. Later in the untitled unmastered. track, Egypt Dean, Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz’ five-year-old son, allegedly co-produced.
As with “untitled 07 | 2014 – 2016,” “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.” stitches together rap and jazz a little less seamlessly than To Pimp a Butterfly tracks like “Alright” or “How Much A Dollar Cost.” But it’s at least entertaining lyrically: “Bitch I get buck, I’m as real as they come / Shit is amazing, I’m feeding my cravings / You know that you want me; come here now lil baby / I’m fuckin’, I’m crazy.” Another relatively low point comes in the free form of the short “untitled 04 | 08.14.2014.,” which serves as more of an interlude, although I’m not sure why such a short, sparse, basically rap-less interlude needed to be stuck on this 30-minute project in the first place. But there’s plenty to offset all of that. Just listen to untitled “06 | 06.30.2014.,” on which CeeLo Green belts out the introspective, perceptive lyrics, “I’m bizarre / avant-garde, Both sides of me are evenly odd,” and Lamar humorously yet poignantly refers to his younger self as a “strange baby.”
The previously unreleased songs from Lamar’s talk show performances, especially “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013” from his December 2014 slot on The Colbert Report, rival a whole slew of songs from the already-genius To Pimp a Butterfly, and beg the question of why they weren’t on the album. It could have been a marketing tactic, as the surprise release and lack of track titles on untitled unmastered. arguably was. Either way, though, this third track exudes social commentary and proves personal: “A piece of mine’s / That’s what the white man wanted when I rhyme / Telling me that he selling me just for $10.99 / If I go platinum from rapping, I do the company fine.” And that may be the real reason this song didn’t make Lamar’s big release—it directly confronts the music industry.
Lamar delivers that same message, which is largely the theme of To Pimp a Butterfly, on “untitled 08 | 09.06.2014.,” the one that premiered on The Tonight Show in January. The song is catchy and unabashed, and Kendrick delivers perhaps the wisest thing I’ve heard from him, and many other lyricists for that matter: “In today’s day and age we practice the self pity of taking the easy way out / You wait on them, him and her / But when a blessing takes too long, that’s when you go wrong / You selfish motherfucker.” So while a few tiers below David Bowie’s Blackstar (which itself was inspired, in part, by To Pimp a Butterfly), untitled unmastered. is one of the best releases to come out so far this year.