What a time to be alive. Hip-Hop’s Resident Conscience, Kendrick Lamar, perhaps spurred by a tweet by LeBron James begging for a new release, decided March 4th, 2016 was as good a time as any to go full Beyonce and release an album that nobody was expecting with no announcement, no hype, no song titles, no nothing… and I was intrigued. Bold release strategy? Talented artist? No titles? Consider my interest piqued. So as I settled in to let untitled unmastered wash over me, King Kendrick spoke some of the first words on the album, “I made To Pimp a Butterfly for you”, and I knew I was in good hands.
I don’t have to tell you who Kendrick Lamar is. Chances are you’re aware of the success of Lamar’s two previous album offerings, To Pimp a Butterfly and 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, and the 28 year old Compton native’s subsequent rise to super-stardom. Compared with those albums, untitled unmastered might feel a bit dis-jointed, and musically, the album is all over the place and that is unquestionably a good thing. In fact, it’s no more than a collection of songs, most likely sourced from Butterfly’s cutting room floor, and it sounds like it. You can almost picture yourself sitting in the studio along with Kendrick and the boys jamming in the later parts of “Untitled 07”. Although mostly brand new, Kendrick has left a trail of bread-crumb tracks over the few months leading up to the release of untitled unmastered. “Untitled 03” was first performed on The Colbert Report after To Pimp a Butterfly was released, it had no title. He also performed “Untitled 08” (at the time called “Untitled 2”) on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. LeBron must have been watching, I know I was. If these are the songs that don’t make the cut for a Kendrick album, I can’t wait to see what he does next.
The TDE-house production staff constantly impresses as well, with their ability to make instruments that shouldn’t really go together sound like they grew up as neighbors. On “Untitled 02”, dark, brooding saxophone and an almost-operatic synth organ lay the perfect foundation for Kendrick to unleash some rapid-fire rhymes and high powered braggadocio. That darkness almost screeches to a halt and gives way to the levity of the beat on “Untitled 03”, a song which may disappoint some fans, given that the performance he delivered on Colbert was so full of life and the album version sounds a bit… dry. Cee-Lo Green makes an appearance on “Untitled 06”, funky bizarreness in tow, and don’t even get me started on the instrumental for “Untitled 07”, because it’s got Beat of the Year written all over it. It’s like the album is just a grab-bag of jams. Put it on shuffle: point, click, and vibe.
Untitled unmastered’s 35-minute runtime feels right. Its not bloated, not too light, and never boring. It’s not as jazzy and spacious as To Pimp a Butterfly and it doesn’t have the grit and focus of good kid, m.A.A.d. city, but it is a solid, interesting project from an artist at the height of his powers, and most importantly, it’s fun to listen to. This is not a typical rap album, in structure or sound. Hell, it’s not even your typical Kendrick album. It doesn’t demands respect, its not a project that sees Kendrick making a drastic shift in style or substance, but it is more Kendrick Lamar – and who could be mad at that?