Kendrick Lamar untitled unmastered.

[Aftermath/Interscope/Top Dawg; 2016]

Styles: duality, raw forms, (altered state of) conscious hip-hop
Others: André 3000, Prince, Miles Davis, Kanye West

Frankly, no one truly knows why Kendrick Lamar embarked on an impromptu trip to South Africa in between the success of 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city and the recording of To Pimp a Butterfly. “I remember he took a trip to Africa and something in his mind just clicked,” collaborator and producer Sounwav says. “For me, that’s when the album really started.” Whether it was to broaden his worldview or perhaps better understand Nelson Mandela’s fight to end apartheid, the trip was nonetheless significant for Lamar and ultimately helped fuel the freewheeling creative process for what would eventually become one of hip-hop’s most exalted albums in recent history. Surely Lamar’s imaginings of Africa is significant in helping us to better understand the album, but it’s not entirely necessary, because evidently, from the surprise release of untitled unmastered., there’s always been a missing piece to that puzzle. For example, what would “i,” Lamar’s self-love anthem, have sounded like had the rapper never utilized the recording studio as his own personal temple? Better yet, exactly what does meditation sound like for the 28-year-old Compton native?

This latest release acts not only as an extended universe for To Pimp a Butterfly, but also as a portal for the drastic changes in the rapper’s persona and musical style between his last two full-lengths. Whether rhythmically bustling or meditative, these eight previously unreleased demos from the Butterfly sessions seethe with Lamar’s still-startling visions and artistic ambitions. On “untitled 03,” the loose concept of Afrofuturism, which he briefly explored on his last album, collides head-on with Eastern philosophies and contemporary inner-city living. The utopian vision of Afrofuturism, which exists plainly throughout the project’s sprawling 34 minutes, is ostensibly based around black identity, while the possibility of a much bleaker dystopian society also props up, threatening to undermine The Artist for a mere profit (“A piece of mine’s/ That’s what the white man wanted when I rhyme/ Telling me that he selling me just for $10.99”). Similarly to its conceptual predecessor, untitled unmastered. draws heavily upon design elements sourced from the rich traditions of the African diaspora, with a narrative that touches on spiritual and cultural experiences. Where Butterfly found Lamar being informed by a thousand old jazz, funk, and soul records, these eight demo tracks look to exact intimate details from Lamar’s ripe, post-trip headspace. Never released to the public until now, this was Lamar’s sonic therapy, jamming off-the-cuff and losing himself in the simple enjoyment of making music.

Outside of the frenzied critical circle, which is probably just recovering from the fanfare, To Pimp a Butterfly seemed to face backlash from casual hip-hop heads and was dismissed as a bloated, occasionally messy album, one that’s even been labeled as being “boring.” But perhaps untitled unmastered.’s demo format and raw, seemingly unkempt stylistic trappings will please those very same naysayers. For one, Lamar’s narratives here are more concise and listenable, even downright engrossing on tracks like “untitled 01.” Where Butterfly standout “The Blacker the Berry” presented a haunting, confrontational holler at societal discourse, “untitled 01” lays it all out in cathartic diary form, with Lamar rapping as if he’s trying to catch every fleeting thought before it vanishes forever. It’s a hallucinatory odyssey through the psyche of a conflicted young man, where there are harrowing visions of “planes falling out the sky” and “trains jumping off the track.” The project’s production — courtesy of recognizable names like DJ Spinz, DJ Khalil, Hit-Boy, Nard & B, and Swizz Beatz — complements Lamar’s dark narrative perfectly, with the bass often sounding like it’s sizzling up from under the intoxicating beat. Lamar has obviously been fine-tuning his song-crafting skills since his debut project, Section.80, and the improvements show.

What untitled unmastered. also goes to show, if anything at all, is just how cathartic and necessary it was for Kendrick Lamar to embark on the journey that would ultimately produce his masterwork, serving mostly as extended, lurid passages that are central to the story. Aesthetically speaking, untitled has just as much in common with Section.80’s unbridled youthful exuberance as it does with the weighty themes on To Pimp a Butterfly, and it’s evident Lamar is still trying to make enjoyable music. It’s both ambient yet thrashing, melodic yet radiating, with standout tracks like “untitled 02” and “untitled 07” fully exhibiting Lamar’s vertiginous flows and adept ear for exciting, tuneful, next-level rap production. It’s conscious rap but filtered through an altered state, elevating the music above mere pontification. Still, what’s revealed by this new project — call it an album, EP, compilation, mixtape, outtake, sketch — is a fiercely independent artist escaping the trappings of hip-hop conventions, both mainstream and otherwise; he seeks ascetic salvation through intense introspection and, in the process, created a great release, no matter where it’s filed.

Links: Kendrick Lamar - Aftermath/Interscope/Top Dawg

Eureka!

Some releases are so incredible we just can’t help but exclaim EUREKA! While many of our picks here defy categorization and explore the constructed boundaries between ‘music’ and ‘noise,’ others complement, continue, or rupture traditions that provide new forms and ways of listening. Not all of our favorites will be listed here, but we think each EUREKA! album is worthy of careful consideration. This section is a work-in-progress, so expect its definition to be in perpetual flux.

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