Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, untitled unmastered. was released on March 4 as a follow-up to the rapper’s landmark album To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB). “There’s no way that he is releasing something else,” I thought, as I read the news about Lamar’s surprise eight-track project. The unforeseen release of the album made me skeptical about the project — I hadn’t even begun to get over the brilliance and complexity of TPAB released nearly a year prior. Was Lamar already over it? How did he have time to create something else after TPAB? How did he maintain his inspiration after releasing TPAB? And, of course, is untitled unmastered. going to be anywhere near as exceptional as probably the most relevant hip hop album of the decade?
Upon listening to untitled unmastered., any initial skepticism about the album’s release is replaced by a sense of gratification. untitled isn’t a new project rushed in its release to help Lamar stay relevant. Rather, it’s an extension of TPAB, almost like the album’s b-sides. The album includes a collection of eight untitled and unmastered tracks — hence the name — left over from TPAB.
The tracks on untitled unmastered. are consistent both sonically and thematically with TPAB. Lamar grapples with some of the same issues: violence, mass incarceration, discrimination and race. On the opening track, “untitled 01,” Lamar reiterates the spiritual themes that reside in his music. In the song, he engages in a dialogue with God, telling him that he “made To Pimp a Butterfly for [him]” and says that God told him to “use his vocals to save mankind,” concluding, “I guess I’m running in place trying to make it to church.”
The album is also a sonic extension of TPAB. This is especially evident in tracks like “untitled 05” and “untitled 02” where he raps to both a jazz drum loop and a crazed synthesized trumpet melody, hallmarks of the sound he pioneered on TPAB.
The track titles on untitled unmastered. consist of a track number and a date that is a probable indicator of when the track was cut. The date, as well as the dialogue on the second part of “untitled 07,” when Lamar is rehearsing the lyrics and melody for “untitled 04,” indicate that these tracks, with the exception of the first part of “untitled 07,” were all recorded during the TPAB sessions in 2014. However, the tracks on untitled unmastered. don’t feel recycled or reused at all. Rather, they feel like a well-orchestrated continuation of TPAB with cohesive themes and structures. The album is grounded on simplicity and straightforwardness — it employs interesting melodies, presents engaging lyrics and boasts well-developed themes. The songs on untitled unmastered. feel purposefully unfinished to retain a sense of directness and purity.
The album’s simplicity, however, does not translate well into a single format. Some of the songs on the album seem brief or have low impact. Without knowing the album’s context, people might think the songs lack the grandeur of previous Lamar tracks (see “Money Trees,” “King Kunta” or “Alright”). Listeners must listen to the whole project to gauge the album’s full effect. However, if they had been released as singles, tracks like “untitled 08” and the first part of “untitled 07” might’ve gotten radio play. They’re similar to “i,” the first single off TPAB in which Lamar was quick to alter into a low-fi live version interrupted by spectators and himself upon the album’s release — in that sense, they seem like songs that Lamar wouldn’t want to be identified with because of their catchiness or likeability. If untitled unmastered. had been titled and mastered upon its release, the album might’ve been a hit, if not because of the more pop palatable songs like “untitled 08,” then because of the simple fact that at Lamar’s stratospheric level of fame, everything he releases is likely to be a hit.
I respect Lamar’s choice to downplay the release of this album. He could’ve released something like Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, a highly publicized, unfinished album with a few hits, but instead opted to release a straightforward set of tracks that at no point claim to be finished — a result of the creative bomb that was TPAB — for whoever chooses to enjoy them. untitled unmastered. gives listeners an insight into Lamar’s creative process and gives fans more to chew on while he continues to transform hip hop. untitled unmastered. speaks to Lamar’s commitment to his art — it’s almost as if fame and attention are superfluous to a man who’s music has already sparked a national conversation about race.