Kendrick Lamar drops conceptual project revealing raw tracks

In Art, Arts & Entertainment, Music
Rapper Kendrick Lamar surprised fans with the release of "untitled unmastered.," an eight track album that reached No. 1 on the Billboard's charts, selling 178,000 copies its first week. ( Courtesy of Pitchfork )
Rapper Kendrick Lamar surprised fans with the release of “untitled unmastered.,” an eight track album that reached No. 1 on the Billboard’s charts, selling 178,000 copies its first week. ( Courtesy of Pitchfork )

“untitled unmastered.” is a compilation of tracks from the cutting-room floor of the Compton rapper’s third album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which won Kendrick Lamar 11 Grammy nominations and spawned an anthem for police brutality and Donald Trump protesters across the country. Lamar’s talents as a rapper are telling if these are the songs that couldn’t make his full-length’s cut.

“untitled unmastered.” is unmistakably raw. Compared to Lamar’s full-length albums, the compilation has a rough, incomplete feel to it, but the way Lamar contextualizes it as a complete package makes it seem conceptual, with minimal, dark artwork and every song left untitled, save for an enigmatic date attached to each track.

The album opens like a film, with singer Bilal narrating the beginning of “untitled 01,” lending the track a sinister atmosphere as he speaks over clashing, dissonant free jazz instrumentation.

As Lamar begins his verse, he evokes biblical, apocalyptic imagery over a beat reminiscent of the dramatic, Wuxia-inspired instrumentation employed by Wu-Tang Clan producer RZA.

Lamar questions whether his faith has been misplaced, “I made ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ for you, told me to use my vocals to save mankind for you.” Despite Lamar’s best efforts and critical recognition, he continues to see people around him suffer.

Lamar’s effectiveness as a rapper is that although his music is overtly political, he rarely uses it as a platform to preach about social issues and is as critical of himself as he is about the world around him.

“Unlike other artists whose juxtaposition of hip-hop bluster with confessional vulnerability feels like shtick, Kendrick does not do performative honesty,” wrote Carvell Wallace for Pitchfork.

On tracks like “untitled 02,” Lamar looks at his ambivalence about his success. “Can’t pick a side, the Gemini,” he raps. Though he seeks to highlight societal problems he sees in his community through his music, his success has ironically distanced him from friends and family.

Lamar juxtaposes an intense, inward criticism with his second verse, employing a listless flow as he raps about giving into excess — “What if I empty my bank account and stunt?” — before the song ends in a cascade of discordant piano keys.

“untitled 03,” which Lamar first performed on “The Colbert Report” in 2014, features a driving beat, accompanied with simple chords from a keyboard and a truncated bass groove by Thundercat, who collaborated with Lamar previously.

Lamar vents his frustration with capitalist greed, contrasting cultures that value peace, equity and welfare with American corporations, specifically record labels that exploit the talent of artists while pressuring them to change their music to increase sales.

“He selling me just for $10.99, if I go platinum for rapping, I do the company fine,” he raps. “Your profession anonymous as an artist, if I don’t target your market.”

“untitled 04,” the album’s shortest track, features singer SZA stepping in for Lamar and singing criticisms of misinformation, encouraging listeners to be skeptical of the world and not accept information uncritically. The song is also the album’s most minimal, driven primarily by SZA’s vocals.

“untitled 05,” marks a return of a jazz ensemble, opening with saxophones, pianos and bass guitars improvising off one another. The track has Lamar at his angriest, railing against unjust systems that fail to protect him and those around him.

“Justice ain’t free, therefore justice ain’t me, so I justify his name on (an) obituary,” he raps. Though Lamar doesn’t advocate violence in his music and often criticizes it, he offers an explanation as to why violence in his community happens: those who turn to it often feel as though there are no other alternatives.

Lamar smoothly transitions with change up of “untitled 06,” eschewing the dissonant, dark jazz with an upbeat, soulful bossa nova arrangement produced by A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and film composer Adrian Younge and accompanied by singer CeeLo Green.

“untitled 06” is celebratory, taking the form of a love letter through which Kendrick talks up aspects of himself that are unconventional. CeeLo sings in the first verse, “I’m bizarre, avant-garde, both sides of me are evenly odd.”

The song is an acceptance of self, put in stark contrast with “To Pimp a Butterfly,” throughout which Lamar repeats the mantra, “Loving me is complicated.”

The longest song on the album, “untitled 07,” is the most intricate and musically varied. It opens with a dark, oscillating synth played over a minimalist trap beat, reminiscent of heavier songs from Lamar’s second album, “good kid, m.A.A.d. City.”

In the first part of the song, he lists earthly possessions: “Drugs won’t get you high as this, fame won’t get you high as this, chains won’t get you high as this.” He juxtaposes material wealth and feelings with feeling the need to “levitate” beyond earthly desires.

As the track progresses, the quality of the recording deteriorates like an old cassette tape. Eventually, it devolves into a grainy recording of what sounds like Lamar freestyling, accompanied by a bass guitar, with a group of friends.

The laidback ending of the eight-minute track transitions into the heavily funk-driven “untitled 08.” The song feels like an extension of Lamar’s collaboration with Parliament and Funkadelic member George Clinton from “To Pimp a Butterfly,” and a sendup of Compton g-funk artists Lamar listened to in the ‘90s.

Despite being influenced by gangster rap, Lamar rejects the lifestyle lived by his idols throughout the song. “When y’all came on the boat looking for hope, and all you can say is that you’re looking for dope, these days ain’t no compromise,” he raps, critical of scamming and drug dealing, which he perceives as shortcuts to success.

Though he speaks harshly about those around him, he also criticizes those who look down on his community without understanding it. “Your pain ain’t mines half the time,” he raps.

Despite being a collection of unmastered demo tracks, most artists could only dream of putting together an album that feels as thematically cohesive as “untitled unmastered.” The arrangements and production prove Lamar’s reputation as a perfectionist.

Though “untitled unmastered.” doesn’t feel as complete as Lamar’s full-length albums, he approaches social issues without proselytizing. “It’s not me pointing at my community; it’s me pointing at myself,” Lamar said to NPR. What elevates Lamar above other rappers, beyond technical skill, is deep introspection and the continuous drive to grow and evolve.

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