In 2012 Kendrick Lamar released ‘Good Kid M.a.a.d City’, an album that many deem to be a near perfect concept album. I was 17 at the time, and the album was an important milestone in my life in that it gave me an appreciation for a culture I’m very much not a part of, and sparked my love for Hip-Hop music. His storytelling was something that I’d seldom heard in music up until that point of my life, and his ability to strip himself back so much spoke so much volume. Last year, I was 19 when he released ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, an album that saw Kendrick Lamar push forward and spread his wings in every way an artist possibly can. The album was dense, experimental, inspiring, and has set the bar higher for everyone in mainstream Hip-Hop. Again, his story telling was something to marvel as he detailed a man’s experience of fame and survivor’s guilt in an unprecedented way, it’s an album that I still try to unpack to this day.
Last week Kendrick Lamar released a follow-up project, ‘untitled unmastered’, even though a year later the dust is still settling around his last project and because this dust is settling, it makes this project so much more satisfying. By releasing this project there’s instantly not the anticipation there would be for a standard album and there’s not the anticipation for album to be so mind-blowing as his previous. ‘untitled unmastered’ is essentially an 8 track compilation album (all called ‘untitled’ followed by a number and date) filled with material that was recorded during the sessions of ‘TPAB’, but to label it ‘demos and outtakes’ as Kendrick himself has, would be an injustice to the music.
This project is a companion piece, and a celebration of, his groundbreaking album last year. It pulls from many of the same themes and the same sounds that the previous album did, and it’s because of its more modest intentions that the album has a distinct charm within Kendrick’s discography. Stylistically this project is his most raw to date, with him taking part of what made the live version of ‘i’ on ‘TPAB’ so charming and applying to here. Kendrick’s vocals aren’t edited nearly as much as they normally would be on a project of his, only being multitracked at times. For the most part he sounds like he’s giving them to us as he would do live, which is great as he’s one of the most genuinely talented MCs out there and seeing him push this energy out in such an uncontrolled way is thrilling. It also seems appropriate since two of the tracks on this album were debuted live on TV.
The Jazz instrumentals that showed up on his last album, as well as the guest spots, are a lot more prominent on here with an unpolished edge. While there was only one actual guest verse on ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ which was Rhapsody on ‘Complexion’, Kendrick takes the time on this short album to give us some brilliant verses and vocals from guests. Cee Lo Green of all people makes an appearance on ‘Untitled 6’ giving a brilliant performance on the groove ridden track and Jay Rock and Punch show up on ‘Untitled 5’ sounding right at home. The instrumental that contains his guests on ‘Untitled 5’ contains nearly six minutes of pounding drums and some of his most out-there experimentation. This is while Kendrick revels in the doubts he suffered from when he was in the peak of his depression ‘Why’d you wanna see a good man with a broken heart?’ he blasts out, like a counter to the uplifting anthem ‘Alright’. The raw instrumentation and performances are an insight into how the polished versions of songs from the sessions ended up on ‘TPAB’.
Kendrick also shares with us to what went on in the recording studio by showing us both a finished version of a track on ‘untitled 4’ and a demo version of it on the backend of ‘Untitled 7’. Not only is the demo version hilarious, but it’s interesting to hear the way the track develop from the humorous, to the paranoid track it is when finished. Over sparse instrumentals Kendrick whispers to himself personifying his conscience in a cacophonous manner while SZA softly sings about how ‘The government mislead the youth’ amongst other problems. Kendrick’s answer to these problems comes in a typically Kendrick way, ‘Head is the answer, head is the future’ they sing. As an obvious double entendre, meaning both mentally thinking and sex, Kendrick once again shows the duality between body and mind, which he previously did on songs like ‘These Walls’.
By giving us the dates you can pinpoint the way in which Kendrick was feeling at certain points throughout the recording process of ‘TPAB’. ‘Untitled 3’ shares the same sentiments of reflection that a lot of his last album did, with him reflecting on what he wants from life, and on what other people want from him. He reflects on how different cultures search for different things based on his own experiences. It can even seem like stereotyping or offensive at times. He says the Black man sees power in acquiring women, and at the end of the track he details his experience of being pimped by the white industry that made him, trying to give him this pedestal just to give reap the benefits.
On the tracks ‘Untitled 2’ and the beginning of ‘Untitled 7’ Kendrick takes a much more direct approach in blending current rap trends such as modern trap with Jazz fusion, with the Hip-Hop side being much more prominent than before. On ‘Untitled 2’ he raps in a flow very similar to how someone like Drake would, while simultaneously taking this trend of making something a buzzword or a soundbite and applying it to his conscience music. ‘Get God on the phone!’ he belts on the subject of asking for direction within his life. On ‘Untitled 7’ the phrase ‘Levitate’ is repeated defiantly and has been a quote on the lips of everyone since the album dropped generated in a way that artists like Future do. This is despite Kendrick’s message of spirituality within the song as he claims that his the joy in his life comes from creating a piece of art (TPAB) and has cleansed and got him higher than any drug or emotion ever has. He raps this in a braggadocios way while he simultaneously acknowledges the pressures that we face in thinking materialism makes one happy.
Kendrick’s ability to take on trends within his style while not giving up anything in his message shows how true he stays to his passion. He’s one of the most versatile mainstream rappers of a generation, with his grasp of flipping narratives and playing different characters ever-spellbinding. Even if he’s creating an album of outtakes and demos as a celebration of his masterpiece, it’s still contains some of the best material of the year so far.
I’m currently at the age of 20, and this album doesn’t look like it’s going to expand my mind any more than his previous albums have. Yet what it has done is let us a bit deeper into the mind of a genius at work. The biggest pleasures on this album don’t come so much from the perception that Kendrick is offering us as much as previous albums do, despite him offering plenty of it. the pleasure mores comes because it’s so interesting to hear Kendrick sound so raw on some of the most experimental moments in his music catalogue to date. This is a fantastic piece of art curated by a man whose talents grow stronger the more power we give him.
PIMP PIMP!! HURRAY!
Best Tracks: Untitled 2, Untitled 3, Untitled 6, Untitled 7