It didn’t take the California State Senate to honour Kendrick Lamar as a cultural icon for the world to take notice. The California wordsmith is unprecedented, and his meteoric rise over the last few years has brought about an utter metamorphosis for the hip hop genre. Kendrick’s roguish decision to release untitled, unmastered the outtakes of his venerated To Pimp A Butterfly arrived in the form of a tweet, consequently altering more than a few weekend plans, and setting social media circuitry ablaze. The Compton native’s appeal can be spliced in illimitable categories, but the conclusion is always his art's untamed, almost psychotic brilliance.
We ask a lot of our musical heroes, and the same artist who exhaled entire tomes of humanity set to drums like Section.80, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, and To Pimp A Butterfly is scrutinised devoutly. We rummage in the airspace between his lyrical escapades so as not to miss camouflaged philosophies. We ponder whether or buried beneath Kendrick’s dreadlocks are prosperous musings about climate change, Donald Trump, ISIS, and Super PAC funding. We even inspect the curvature of the numbers in a track titled 'untitled 03- 05.28.2013' in hopes of unlocking Mayan-style codes.
Kendrick’s thoroughly nuanced poetics are such a steep departure from the norm that it's impossible to claim complete assimilation without exhaustive listening sessions, but even then the significance becomes even more indiscriminate. The longer one peers at the portrait of the artist as a young man, the more facets reveal themselves in ingenious, kaleidoscopic fashion. However, most likely owing to its status as an 'unmastered' release, this album is bereft of the same fastidious sonic rendezvous as we are used to hearing. And yet, for all of its discordance, there is both the degree of palpable cohesion belying To Pimp A Butterfly and the unorthodox narrative of GKMC that lures the listener close.
The free jazz ambience is amplified throughout, but not solely in the instrumentals. Kendrick’s experimental hankering is constantly in flux. He spends the entirety of the record fusing seemingly disparate parts and wafting between snippets of ideas. The interplay between sexuality and oppression - a main thematic current of TPAB - is executed with the commencement track, 'Untitled 01'. Kendrick paints a bleak picture of a world unraveled by the apocalypse, where any sense of spiritual or ethical morality has vanished. His captivating vocals convey the authenticity and terror in his vision, and there is not a shred of optimism by the verse’s finale: “I guess I’m running in place trying to make it to church.”
Kendrick wastes no time revisiting religious concerns in the ensuing track, 'Untitled 02', as he pleads to an anonymous source to “Get God on the phone!” A cog in the Kendrick machine is his ability to affect different sensations with his alternating vocal pitches. Within seconds he is seemingly desperate for spiritual salvation, then stoically unaffected by his plight, and finally, animated and rebellious. This same platter of topical themes presents itself again in 'Untitled 03' as he balances racial concerns with both gravity and hilarity as 'For Free? (Interlude)' from TPAB. He puts the spotlight on mainstream stereotyping by examining specific ethnic groups, with the most pitiful depiction reserved for African Americans. The contrast between the tragic characterisation and the upbeat, jazzy instrumentation perfectly coincides with what we are used to from Kendrick - easily digestible melodies that allow his hard dose of reality resonate.
Not only do the tracks lack titles, but the features are masked as well, creating an almost communal feel. Loyal admirers will most likely notice the croons of labelmate SZA on the brisk 'Untitled 04,', harmonising along with Kendrick that “head is the answer”. Kendrick’s chemistry with his longtime collaborators is tangible, especially on the following track, 'Untitled 05'. As is often the case when artists decide to issue previously unreleased material in official formats, a general feeling of ‘why didn’t you release this earlier’ that is never answered. Possibly the record’s crown achievement, Kendrick explores how grim surroundings necessitate his predilection for violence, and ultimately, a slowly diagnosed insanity. Jay Rock and Kendrick continue in the vein they established on 'Money Trees' from GKMC, relaying their message with the same harrowing desperation.
Owing in part to the album’s brevity - clocking in at a little over 30 minutes - it’s difficult to listen in fragmented sessions. Even with an album of demoed starts and stops, the entire package is difficult to siphon. untitled, unmastered closes with one of the most familiar tunes, the unofficially titled 'Blue Faces' track from Kendrick’s performance on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon. The fact that even Kendrick’s rough drafts are sketches that the world feels the need to reckon with is just more proof of his brilliance. While fans dedicate exorbitant amounts of time to deciphering all the album’s nuances, one only imagine Kendrick is preparing his next artistic touchstone.
8Kellan Miller's Score