Album reviewsMusic

untitled unmastered is Kendrick Lamar’s well-deserved victory lap

6 March, 2016 — by Christopher Ratcliff0

First of all, don’t get too excited. Although this is a surprise new release from Kendrick Lamar, it’s not a brand new album-length follow-up to To Pimp a Butterfly. Come on! We haven’t been that well-behaved this year, what makes you think we deserve that?

But… maybe do get a bit excited.

Even though the running time of untitled unmastered only just breaks the 30 minute mark, and the tracks are essentially rough cuts from the last two years – mostly recorded around the same time as To Pimp a Butterfly – there’s some incredible work here that could easily find their place as stand-out tracks on any ‘proper’ Kendrick Lamar album.

untitled unmastered

Choosing not to give the collection a title, and merely naming each track with a number and a date lets the work stand for itself. There are no preconceptions, each track is contextualised by manner of when they were brought to life by Kendrick Lamar. And that’s exactly what this release feels like: a window into his creative process. It’s possible that all it took was a tweet from LeBron James to twist his arm enough to go “fuck it” and drop a collection of demos onto Spotify, but you seriously can’t help but be impressed by the quality of these ‘unmastered’ demos, and the speed in which he managed to make them work as a cohesive whole.

There’s nothing quite as unhinged or deliriously leftfield as on TPAB, it’s a much smoother ride. In fact some of these tracks are straight up soulful. ‘untitled 06’ is almost Al Green-like in its sumptuous loveliness and it’s about as close to a laid-back love song as Kendrick Lamar has ever come, with its flutes, seductive bass and wood-block percussion. There’s also ‘untitled 05’, with its free-jazz sax, piano and Anna Wise’s breathy vocals, that would fit perfectly on one of Guru’s Jazzmatazz albums.

But that’s not to say there’s no bite in untitled unmastered. Kendrick’s verses are as pointed and poetically complex as ever. Opening track ‘untitled 01’ shows Kendrick ripping through his own version of the Book of Revelations, where his visions of apocalypse lay waste to everyone, whether guilty or not, “Dark skies, fire and brimstone/some of us sent home/some of us never did wrong, but still went to hell.” Its dramatic production puts it in the same exhilarating edge-of-destruction bracket as Quannum’s ‘Storm Warning’.

kendrick lamar

‘untitled 02’ is a woozy, hypnotic trip through Kendrick’s post TPAB success and his frustration with other rappers trading on racist stereotypes, Kendrick’s vocals here are particularly louche, stretching each word to narcotised lengths, before increasing in speed and becoming the very beat of the track itself. It’s one of his most versatile performances ever.

Not every track is brilliant. If I have to hear the often repeated “Pimp-pimp, hooray!” one more time I might go nuts and ‘untitled 07’ is little more than two half-formed ideas capped off with three minutes of patience-wearing studio noodling, which was probably more fun for the people involved than anyone listening at home. But then immediately it’s followed by ‘untitled 08’, a funky, snaking beast filled with 90s good-time vibes, hand-claps and “woo-woo” backing vocals. It’s a total smash.

The whole thing ends, naturally, with a final “Pimp-pimp, hooray!” But with this exclamation it’s clear what this collection means. It’s a victory lap for Kendrick Lamar and To Pimp a Butterfly, which was a complex, challenging piece of art, that deserved all the critical praise and awards lavished upon it. But it also managed to do the very rarest thing for such an album and became a massive commercial hit. That’s a Sgt. Pepper level of win.

Kendrick Lamar’s untouchable right now and he’s making the world a better place one record at a time. Even with his demos.

Check out all the latest music releases in our new album reviews section, including Poliça’s latest United Crushers.

Kendrick Lamar - untitled unmastered

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