Review: untitled unmastered. – Kendrick Lamar

I believe the best way to view untitled unmastered. is as a victory lap. If you’ll recall, during the actual recording of To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick was mostly silent. He played some tour dates here and there, but for the most part, he focused on recording new music and doing a bit of soul-searching. This most recent album cycle has been drastically different. He supported TPAB with the King Kunta Groove sessions (a live instrumentation show during which he played the entirety of the record), played on numerous talk shows, gave a stunning performance on the Grammy’s, and even dabbled into filmmaking. Now, he’s given us this project; a collection of unreleased (and unmastered, of course) studio demos recorded during the making of TPAB.

The reason I call untitled unmastered. a victory lap is because, although many of the tracks feel lacking in one way or another, it’s still an astounding collection of material that truly shows off every aspect of Lamar’s versatility as an artist. Perhaps the most notable example of this is the variety in his flow across the project’s 8 tracks. On “Untitled 02,” for example, his intonation can simultaneously recall Future, MF DOOM, and 2Pac. He turns a brooding, trap-influenced instrumental into a journey; in a single instant he takes the entire song from 0 to 100. The dynamic ability he has as a rapper is mind-bending.

The diversity amongst the production showcases this as well. Kendrick has the capacity to spit charismatically over straight jazz, funk, trap, boom bap, and even latin grooves.  Yes, this album is a continuation of TPAB thematically and musically. But despite that, this record has a very different sound, and not just in a more stripped-back sense. untitled and TPAB don’t share a single producer, and besides “Untitled 03”, many of the notable guests are first time Kendrick collaborators. This not only changes the feel of the songs, but also saves this project from being an afterthought. It has its own sound.

That sound, as I’ve hinted at, is far more raw than anything we’ve heard from Kendrick before. The past three full-length releases he’s given us have been very conceptual, detailed, and distinct. Each one creates its own universe with incredible precision and near perfection. For better and for worse, untitled is not that. Transitions are fumbled, beats are unfinished, recordings are flawed. I can’t help but wish, when I listen to “Untitled 02”, that the snares cracked more, or that the sub bass was stronger. But, then again, that’s kind of the genius of this record. This man has just released an album that critics have hailed as an “instant classic”, and many think he can do no wrong. To release a bare collection of studio outtakes is to reject all expectations the public has for him. It does exactly what TPAB did, but in the exact opposite way.

Of course, the record impresses beyond its concept. Each song explores its own nook of Kendrick’s world, going far deeper than polished product of TPAB ever could have gone. “Untitled o5” features a very fluid, brooding drumbeat accompanied by gorgeous piano lines and strings. Kendrick doesn’t actually enter the song until after the two minute mark, but when he does, you know it. He raps with so much energy and swagger that the song is, in a moment, elevated to its full dynamic potential, then gently set down again. “Untitled 03” and “Untitled 06” feel like complete tracks, so much so that they almost don’t belong. The former is a smooth funk instrumental reminiscent of “These Walls”, especially considering that it features Thundercat, Anna Wise, and Bilal. The latter is a latin/soul groove that flows effortlessly, thanks to production from Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest. Kendrick is just as collected and cool as the beat, and a somewhat surprising feature from Cee-Lo Green gifts us with some virtuosic falsetto vocals.

I believe “Untitled 07” speaks to the ideas of this project better than any other track. It opens with a head-nodding, ominous trap beat that bumps as hard as any other Kendrick song. Abruptly, it cuts into a hypnotic Motown instrumental, over which Kendrick reflects on his fame and fortune. Finally, this fades out, and what remains is a three minute lo-fi recording of, presumably, Kendrick working on a song. It’s an intimate gaze into his process, and something we haven’t received before on record. It’s untitled, and certainly unmastered. This may just be a stepping stone to Kendrick’s next major project, but it’s also risky, impressive, and fucking musical.


Written by Preston Fulks


One comment

  1. Uncle Mike · March 8, 2016

    Really great. Keep it up, man.


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