A gripping and sober self-awareness: check. An arresting commentary on the racial tensions that exist in our country: check. Funky, jazzy tracks: yes, please. It’s weird, because after I listened to untitled unmastered, I reacted in a manner very similar to when the baby-faced assassin, Steph Curry, casually settled Golden State’s overtime contest against the Oklahoma City Thunder, with a three-pointer from what might as well have been half-court: I thought to myself, Yeah… that makes sense. What Chef Curry does on the basketball court is hardly believable, but geniuses tend to pull of the impossible time and time again. What Kendrick Lamar continues to do is nothing short of revolutionary for the rap game, and to quote a lesser rapper by the name of Meek Mill, “it’s getting spooky.”
Fresh off the heels of his chart-topping release of his 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick dropped a surprise release, titled untitled unmastered, on March 4. It seems like more and more artists (especially rappers) are choosing to just mess with the game and surprise fans with content. Around this time last year, Drake dropped If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, and a year before that D’Angelo released Black Messiah. I obviously won’t speak about The Life of Pablo because, well… I still have Tidal, and it’s starting to feel like a drug addiction I can’t kick. I basically keep telling myself I’ll cancel the subscription, but as soon as I hear “Ultralight Beam” come on, I’m like a junkie with a spoon. But that’s neither here nor there. Rather, I’m here to talk about what will probably be one of the weirdest and most compelling releases of 2016, and it’s only March. Boom, I said it.
Untitled unmastered is what’s known as a “compilation album” because the tracks were previously recorded and had gone unreleased. You probably recognized a few songs from live performances – Kendrick performed “Untitled 03” on Colbert in 2014, “Untitled 08” on Fallon in February and blessed the world with another show-stopping performance of “Untitled 03” at this year’s Grammys. In truth, I never expected Kendrick to release these songs along with six others, but thank goodness he did, and just in time for midterms.
The album’s funk/jazz instrumentation is reminiscent of To Pimp a Butterfly, and sure enough, musicians like Thundercat, who appeared on that album, are featured prominently in untitled unmastered. Other features include Cee-Lo Green and SZA, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Alicia Keys and Swizz Beats’ five-year-old son, Egypt, is credited with producing the second half of the track, “Untitled 08.”
Of course, the skittering drum beats, experimental horns and saxophone and avant-garde vocals do not interfere with K-Dot’s absolutely ruthless rhymes, like “I can put a rapper on life support/ Guarantee that’s something none of you want” or “Before you poke out your chest, loosen your bra/ Before you step out of line and dance with the star/ I could never end a career if it never start.” In short, the album is inventive and multifaceted, yet satisfying in the most fundamental way. And just how I expect Steph-dog Curry (I made that nickname up) to continue to drain threes like nobody’s business, I expect Kendrick to continue to achieve what is arguably the hardest feat for a rapper: creating music that I need to play on full blast in my Subaru Outback that can also be played after protestors in Chicago succeed in breaking up a Donald Drumpf rally. In truth, I think the two qualities are interdependent. Kendrick wouldn’t be as popular as he is if his songs didn’t, to use the technical term, bump. But the fact that K-Dot is also thoughtfully speaking on the most pressing issues facing our society in these, to use another technical term, bangers is remarkable.
I’d like to note that I actively chose not to dive into a deep analysis of each track, or even offer any in-depth thoughts on the specific themes in untitled unmastered. That’s because there are 12 other white dudes with liberal arts degrees, who wrote reviews of the album on Pitchfork, Hot New Hip Hop, The Atlantic and Rolling Stone. Shoutout to Time for employing a female music critic. Maybe my next article should be on the totally homogenous world of music criticism. Anyway, I urge you to just listen to the album. Several times. I assure you, you’ll be better for it. If you care, my favorite song is probably “Untitled 02.”