REVIEW: Kendrick Lamar – ‘untitled unmastered.’


Kendrick Lamar
untitled unmastered.

by Chad Jewett

The expansiveness of To Pimp A Butterfly, last year’s absolutely essential LP from Los Angeles rapper Kendrick Lamar, was such that the album regularly found Lamar piling characters, verses, locations, histories, and voices atop one another, underlining the fiercely knotted-up concerns of his worldview by refusing to separate ideas into categories. This meant the effusive self-esteem anthem of “i” being suddenly interrupted by Lamar breaking up a fight, or a song like “Complexion” serving triple duty as a love song, a critique of colorism, and a confessional, or the rap-superhero confidence of “Hood Politics” being prefaced by a mocking voicemail and a nagging subtext of alienation. Indeed, Butterfly was perhaps at its most poignant when exploring the tensions of “home” for an artist who is simultaneously fiercely loyal and intrepidly critical of that home. “Hood Politics” is the sound of a returning champion, bookended on either side by the outsider/insider doubts of “Momma” and “How Much a Dollar Cost”. Writ large, this interlacing of ideas and attentions (Lamar refuses to ever leave us “settled”) is one of Butterfly’s most profound contributions, and one of its most gripping provocations. And while it was clear that the adventurous intersection of concepts and subjects that played out across Butterfly was what made it so immediately and profoundly special, that sense of carefully arranged balance only becomes clearer as one spends time with untitled unmastered, an eight-song collection of unreleased material written in and around those sessions. Fascinating on its own as a brief yet compelling (and fully realized) document, untitled also serves as a subtle peek into Kendrick Lamar’s editing process. All of a sudden, seeing what was left off of To Pimp A Butterfly tells us a whole lot about what was included.

Sonically, the collection maintains the sumptuous, liquid funk and airy post-bop that defines most of the preceding album. “untitled 03 l 05.28.2013” echoes the pliant Funkadelic grooves and persistent stomp of “Wesley’s Theory” and “These Walls” while “untitled 06 | 06.30.2014” maintains the ethereal, billowing jazz of “Institutionalized” while making room for Cee-Lo Green, whose own astral version of auteurist 70s soul is entirely well-suited to Lamar’s own imaginative ear for, say, the more obscure moments of albums like Marvin Gaye’s I Want You. But the collection also finds Lamar and his collaborators (including virtuosos Thundercat and Robert Glasper) experimenting even more audaciously with structure and sonics, as on “untitled 04 | 08.14.2014,” built from little more than a free-form dotting of guitar and bass, richly layered harmonies, and asymmetrical synthesizer stabs, an impressionistic mood piece that remains compelling, even at its most avant-garde. The same can be said of the interludes that surface on “untitled 07 | 2014 – 2016” and “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014”, the former pairing a child’s voice singing “Compton is where I’m from” to a piece of horn-driven baroque while the latter sets a sharp-edge skein of free jazz beneath a chant of “Pimp-pimp-hooray!”. Untitled finds more space for these kinds of dazzlingly multivalent genre cross-sections, these sort of collaged ideas that power songs like “Wesley’s Theory” and “King Kunta”, recalling post-everything jazz-soul hybrids like Ornette Coleman’s Science Fiction. And like Coleman and his contemporaries in the Black Aesthetic-informed avant-garde of the early 70s, Lamar seems to embrace these musical challenges as social challenges. Silences are just as often exclamation points as they are rests; changes in tempo just as often serve as changes of mind; tonality and tension often rhyme thematically.

Indeed, untitled unmastered arguably finds Lamar being even more daring with how he pairs his many voices, cadences, and deliveries to these sonic quilts. Take the much-discussed “untitled 05 | 09.21.2014” (performed in part at the Grammy’s), with its loose, earth-toned boom-bap, offering the album’s most airy, lush surface, until Lamar arrives with a punchy, near-shouted delivery: “See I’m living with anxiety / Ducking that sobriety / Fucking up the system / I ain’t fucking with society”. The friction between the electrified delivery and its breezy vessel is the collection’s clear highlight – indeed, it would have been a highlight had it been included on Butterfly, finding Lamar at his most excitingly imaginative in his provocative pairing of sound and concept. Elsewhere, there’s a certain atonal ominousness in “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014” (the album’s other clear highlight) that marks the most stark angle left off of the album proper, wherein Lamar echoes the song’s creaking, spectral palette, all clashing saxophones and swirling minor-key organ to an equally ghostly falsetto that Lamar has never before explored in quite this apocalyptic a register. Untitled also finds Kendrick playing with silence in a way that provides a fascinating photo-negative to the bustling, rubbery maximalism of To Pimp A Butterfly (one wouldn’t be surprised to find a much quieter, more atmospheric record as the follow up to the Butterfly projects). This collection is often more haunted. Take the whispered pauses of “untitled 04” or the mounting tension that comes with each gap in the beat of “untitled 01 | 08.19.2014”, further evidence of Lamar’s cinematic instincts for what makes a song compelling when old anchors like “choruses” and “hooks” have been eschewed for complicated song-suite structures and multi-part fugues.

Thus untitled unmastered becomes both a rewarding mini-album on its own and a thought-provoking workbook of the ideas that Lamar assiduously sewed together on the album to which these demos built. Itself constructed from recurring ideas and cycling leitmotifs, it’s humbling to see all the other ideas and trains-of-thought that could have fit the concept album of any artist less a perfectionist than Lamar. The “pimp-pimp-hooray!” chant appears a couple of times here, a sign of a riff that the rapper was toying with before deciding it didn’t fit. We see similar trial-and-error tinkering in the racial thought experiment of “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013” (notably the earliest demo available here), which plays with ethnic essentialisms, but never quite clarifies if it’s deconstructing those notions or not, a contrast to the much more definitive racial critiques and deconstructions of Butterfly. Here you can see Lamar working through those ideas at the same time as he is, elsewhere in the collection, exploring expressions of intimacy that will eventually, on To Pimp A Butterfly, be tied so poignantly to questions of race and color on “Complexion (A Zulu Love)”.

That documentarian aura, that sense that what untitled most successfully offers is a real-time demonstration of Kendrick Lamar’s process, is most underlined on the modal, multi-part “untitled 07 | 2014 – 2016”, which moves from a practically free-verse play on the word “levitate” (“Love won’t get you high as this / Drugs won’t get you high as this”) to an interlude of stately chamber music, to a stomping diss-track, to a fly-on-the-wall bit of sonic vérité as Lamar tries out melodies and excitedly rattles off ideas for the structure of Butterfly as bassist Thundercat offers a slow-plucked counterpoint. That moment, surprisingly complete even in its utter rawness, defines what makes untitled unmastered so successful in so many ways. It’s the rare document that underlines all the best qualities of the art that proceeded it, even as it tantalizes with glimpses at what could have been. With To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar offered one of hip hop’s most ambitiously comprehensive statements. It only speaks to his imagination, and the sheer aesthetic heights of the register at which he is currently operating, that even the moments between the moments so often sound like masterpieces.

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