By Jeffrey Adelson
Without any kind of fanfare or promotion Kendrick Lamar has just released his newest album, Untitled, Unmastered. A roughly 30 minute collection of eight untitled tracks, Untitled, Unmastered is a gift from Kendrick Lamar to his fans and also a statement that he is truly on top of the rap game. In 2015, Kendrick released his critically acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly, possibly the best rap album released in the last 10 years. Grammys and other publicity poured onto Kendrick Lamar and at each step of the way he has delivered more great music, more live performances, and more humility. The tracks on Untitled, Unmastered are, in reality, leftovers from To Pimp a Butterfly, but this very fact makes this project worth listening to.
To Pimp a Butterfly was a long album, a full one hour and twenty minutes, and Untitled, Unmastered serves as a continuation or an epilogue to that project, exploring some of the same musical and lyrical ideas and giving us an update on what Kendrick has been doing since the release of To Pimp a Butterfly almost one year ago. As a warning before I get into the album, if you have not enjoyed Kendrick’s music in the past or are unfamiliar with it I recommend starting with good kid, m.A.A.d city or To Pimp a Butterfly. Untitled, Unmastered is deliberately an unfinished and unpolished project and should be treated as such. With that out of the way, let’s talk some music.
Kendrick’s tracks on this newest album combine the same elements of modern hip-hop as well as of jazz, funk and soul that he was working with on To Pimp a Butterfly. Pianos, horns, and drums make up the live instrumentation of the album with talented, if unpolished, performances by the various artists Kendrick collaborates with (many of the same artists credited on To Pimp a Butterfly). Along with these more traditional instruments, haunting synthetic lines also run across this album along with the manufactured bass and beats that will be familiar to anyone who listens to modern rap and hip-hop. The use of jazz is still as impressive as it was on To Pimp a Butterfly, and there were a couple more moments on this album where I thought Kendrick was delivering verses over a more typical rap beat – something that wouldn’t go amiss in a Drake song. Overall, the instrumental component to this project was snappy and moody, where appropriate, though nothing new for Kendrick Lamar.
Lyrically, Kendrick remains incredibly talented, and he delivers again in these songs, even if they are just excess, showing both technical rapping ability and great writing skills. The themes he explores are not too far from those on To Pimp a Butterfly, but here is where we see Kendrick giving a bit of an update on what he has been doing as he has become even more successful and even more famous. The first song, as well as multiple others in this collection, describes the world in the terms of the biblical Book of Revelations, and Kendrick dives into this apocalyptic world, asking what it means to be a good Christian, what it means to be a good man, good lover, good friend, etc. These ideas are not new to Kendrick’s music, but in his verses he paints a picture of ever-growing temptation to throw out his faith and give in to the pressures around him. Kendrick also does spend time celebrating the release of To Pimp a Butterfly, at multiple points rightfully naming himself the current king of rap. He remains socially conscious in his music, asking tough questions of race relations, and I also understand his religious imagery to be reference to the continuing tensions in American politics and society.
As a whole, this album is more of the same from Kendrick Lamar, but that’s no criticism; it’s a compliment. He is not breaking new ground here, but by releasing these songs without any promotion and leaving them untitled he is telling his listeners that these are extras and not his full effort. What is amazing is how good these songs are, given that they are really an addendum or an index to To Pimp a Butterfly. These tracks also offer an intimate look into Kendrick’s creative process – a treat for fans and neutral listeners alike.
The final verdict – definitely check this album out. If you haven’t listened to Kendrick Lamar’s other albums then do that first, and then come back here. Untitled, Unmastered is Kendrick Lamar’s statement and stamp: he is on top of the rap game and he isn’t planning on moving; this is just a little bit to hold us all over until he releases his next major project.
For a couple different opinions check these out: