‘untitled unmastered.‘ is fine the way it is
Thom Behrens | Monday, March 14, 2016
On March 4, Kendrick Lamar released a compilation album entitled “untitled unmastered.” on Aftermath/Interscope records through Top Dawg Entertainment. The album contains songs that Lamar was unable to release on his critically acclaimed 2015 album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” as Kendrick told Pitchfork. The album is 34-minutes long, and each song is untitled besides a number and a date between 2013 and 2016, which indicates when the song was written, according to Consequence of Sound.
From one angle, it is visibly reactionary to Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo,” which was released several weeks prior. Kanye’s album, which he purported through his Twitter account to be a gospel account, received much backlash for this title, given much of the album’s crass and morally bankrupt content. Conversely, Lamar, who has always had the rare ability to reconcile spiritual pursuits with corporeal struggles, threads gospel themes and religious sympathies throughout all of his music, his latest effort included. Furthermore, whereas “The Life of Pablo” was the culmination of much internet hype, single releases, Instagram posts and eye-catching Twitter activity, “untitled unmastered.” came suddenly and without announcement. In the second half of “untitled 7,” Kendrick’s words almost point directly to Kanye’s “30 Hours,” speaking to those in his studio about making “jam tracks,” and casually instructing those around him how to play and perform. And in the context of Kanye’s album — at times disconnected and ad lib heavy — which has continued to have songs updated and re-released even a month after its debut, the format and nature of “untitled unmastered.” seems to be Kendrick saying, “Oh, so this is what we’re doing? Here, have some B-sides.”
But B-sides aren’t always inferior, and “untitled unmastered.” is fantastic proof. A graceful and logical follow-up to “To Pimp a Butterfly,” “untitled unmastered.” is unassumingly beautiful. Kendrick makes no expressed effort to “top himself” in lyric, sound or concept, yet still gives us an earnest and artful, ultimately very satisfying piece. “TPAB” defined the year in rap with Lamar’s reactionary lyrics, abrasive tone and construction, his rendition of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe” to the hip-hop machine. With “untitled unmastered.,” he now cements himself as an independent titan: “push[ing] the club to the side for [God]” as he says in the album’s opener. And like Dylan, he chooses to actively distance himself from the culture of his typified genre and, with “untitled unmastered.,” shows us the beauty and depth that can come by granting artists this freedom. Much like the man whose vocal strategies he imitates, Kendrick has become both the poster child and rebel of his genre.
The compilation, although characteristically avant-garde, still contains all the key ingredients for a fantastic listening experience: collaborators CeeLo Green and Jay Rock make frequent appearances, and bassist and frequent collaborator Thundercat appears on over half the tracks. Shimmying drumlines, recurring anthemic mantras and those background singers who sang “We want the funk” in “King Kunta” move the listener through a deep and head-nodding experience. Due to its relaxed structure, the listener finds himself not moving from song to song, but through the entire project, resurfacing at moments to appreciate specific riffs and hooks. Thundercat’s phenomenal expertise on the bass helps anchor the album to the same beat that led “To Pimp a Butterfly.” The album is pervaded by the chant “Pimp, Pimp, Hooray!” — a reminder that the material in this new album is cut of the same cloth as his last. The reminder is welcomed, but not needed; it is clear both from theme and quality that “untitled unmastered.” belongs to the Lamar who is at the peak (thus far) of his artistic career.