Kendrick Lamar came to Columbus last year, as a part of 106.7 The Beat’s one-year anniversary concert, and completely killed his set. The concert was after the release of his critically acclaimed third studio album To Pimp A Butterfly, so the songs were fresh, and the audience reacted as such.
Following the success of To Pimp A Butterfly came 11 Grammy nominations, five of which were awarded, and the politically charged live performance that had Billboard calling it, “easily one of the best live TV performances in history.” Some were upset of course, but never mind those people. Kendrick Lamar unapologetically asserted blackness, as fluid and beautiful and complex as that idea is.
— LeBron James (@KingJames) February 23, 2016
Despite the naysayers, fans were impressed, including LeBron James. James tweeted Top Dawg (the independent record label exec that signed Lamar) asking about the various untitled tracks Kendrick has performed during live performances of To Pimp A Butterfly tracks. Then, in announcing Top Dawg Entertainment’s upcoming projects, the label alluded to a possible Kendrick project on the horizon. Now, we have ‘untitled, unmastered,’ a project with no roll out, no concept, and no name; putting King Kendrick on top.
“I made To Pimp A Butterfly ‘fore you told me to use my vocals to save man-kind for you”
To Pimp A Butterfly stylistically is very different than Kendrick’s previous works. It’s a multi-layered exploration of funk, soul, and jazz influences, taking on topics of systematic racism, depression, and self-worth. ‘Untitled, Unmastered ’ takes a similar approach and does so in 30 minutes. These are just the demos, spare parts left over from the album and jam sessions. And to think, if we didn’t have to have ‘untitled, unmastered,’ the tracks could’ve easily sat around collecting dust, but doing so would’ve truly been selfish in terms of artistry.
The album features the usual suspects with Anna Wise, SZA, Thundercat, and Terrace Martin, plus an appearance from CeeLo Green and a rare guest verse from Punch, president of TDE.
On “untitled 02,” Kendrick spits one-syllable bars mimicking the rhyme schemes of his repetitive rap peers, while “untitled 03” challenges white ownership of black music. In it he says,
“Tell ‘em we don’t die, we multiply.”
While the song “Alright” is still being chanted at protests around the country, ‘untitled’ continues to serve as Kendrick’s soundtrack to the Black Lives Matter era.
Kendrick Lamar’s album ’untitled’ seems so effortless. Kendrick and Top Dawg can put together an artistically challenging album in their sleep, or rather while we sleep. Lines like,
“They say the government mislead the youth / And welfare don’t mean well for you”
on “untitled 04” are thoughtfully challenging, grating against what we know of our government, our society and our politics.
“untitled 06” is similar to To Pimp A Butterfly’s “i” as a plea for self-confidence, while “untitled 05” tackles depression. K-Dot covers leaps and bounds of the African American experience, and it’s much more digestible on untitled than on To Pimp A Butterfly.
“Cornrow Kenny, he was born with a vision / All morning with the mixed dashboards triple digits”
This isn’t to discredit To Pimp A Butterfly, but as excellent as an album as it is, many people did not take the time to replay it after the first few listens. I’ve personally heard discussions on the album in terms of its replay value; that it’s not a good album to drive around to or work out with. And though I hate to admit it, systematic racism isn’t something I typically like to contemplate while on I-270. But ‘untitled, unmastered’ comes in, and it all seems so simple, even when the subject matter is anything but.
It feels a bit over-reactive to call this album ‘the one’ that puts Kendrick on top, but it seems fitting. No other artist is putting this much thought into untitled tracks and conceptual albums or documenting Black America in 30 minutes, especially not now. But Kendrick does it so effortlessly, it’s hard not to give him the crown.
untitled, unmastered has staying power to be one of Kendrick Lamar’s best works, and one of the most creative projects of late. In all of its unplanned excellence, it manages to soundtrack the black experience in such a short amount of time, something Kendrick continues to do time and again.