Last Thursday, Top Dawg Entertainment gave hip-hop fans around the world a brand new Kendrick Lamar release consisting of eight untitled, unfinished records from the sessions of 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly. After performing unreleased songs on The Colbert Report, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, and the 58th Grammy Awards, the buzz around the untitled songs reached a fever pitch when LeBron James took to Twitter to urge Kendrick to release “those untitled tracks.” All hail King James, because a mere week after his request, Kendrick Lamar and Top Dawg dropped untitled unmastered.
Unlike his previous two records, Kendrick’s latest release does not have an overarching theme, but this is because untitled unmastered. is a collection of unfinished, un-mastered demos that didn’t make the cut for To Pimp a Butterfly. Each of the eight songs on the album is labelled “untitled” with a number delineating its order in the track list, as well as (presumably) the date the song was recorded. All tracks date back to 2013 or 2014, except for “untitled 7," which is labelled “2014-2016." untitled unmastered. is an afterthought—but it is also one of the best afterthoughts to ever grace my ears.
The record kicks off on a grim note as Kendrick vividly depicts a gruesome apocalypse on “untitled 1." Kendrick hops on a minimal, funky instrumental with ominous bass and foreboding synth swells. He pleads with God for his salvation, rapping “I made To Pimp a Butterfly for you / Told me to use my vocals to save mankind for you." The song ends with the call-and-response chant “Pimp Pimp! Hooray!” that takes a stab at the music industry, out to “pimp” his talent for money.
The whimpering falsetto that Kendrick employs on the subsequent track “untitled 2” proves that there is no limit to what Kendrick can do with his voice. He raps over a brooding trap beat infused with crooning saxophone leads, adopting a flow and sonic direction similar to Drake’s work on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late. Lyrically, Kendrick struggles to reconcile his luxurious hip-hop lifestyle with a sense of responsibility to his hood.
Kendrick’s closing verse on this track is the same one that ended his outstanding Fallon performance, but Kendrick raps with a fraction of the intensity. Although his lack of passion disappointed me, I was simultaneously relieved that Kendrick did not attempt to create a pale imitation of his jaw-dropping Fallon performance, instead giving us a laid-back take on the same verse. Kendrick’s motives for assuming a Drake-esque sound on the song become clear when he eventually digs into the verse, shouting “What if I certified all of these ones?” This line is a subtle jab at Drake, suggesting that regardless of whether Kendrick’s records are RIAA certified like Drake’s, content and message are the only things that should matter in rap, not petty awards.
“untitled 3," also known as the original “Untitled” performed on The Colbert Report, features groovy synth bass and heavenly woodwind trills. Kendrick raps about the different ideas of success amongst different races and cultures, again attacking the music industry for “pimping” him. Overall, the album version of “untitled 3” holds its own against the Colbert predecessor, but Kendrick again lacks a certain intensity characteristic of his television performances.
The interlude track “untitled 4” features soul singer SZA expressing the black community’s discontent with government leadership, followed by Kendrick rapping governmental propaganda and misinformation in quick, syllabic whispers. This track is the record’s most instrumentally sparse, with two guitars providing eerie ambience while SZA sings “Head is the answer / Head is the future." Although this line seems sexual on the surface, Kendrick is actually urging blacks to seek education in order to combat their marginalization.
This transitions smoothly into the jazzy “untitled 5." Frequent Kendrick collaborator Anna Wise sings an ethereal yet melancholy hook atop a walking bass line and swirling saxophones. Wise’s infectious melody starkly contrasts with Kendrick’s lumbering, Killer Mike-esque flow, which details his descent into sin and evil.
“untitled 6” shows Kendrick flaunting his inner Gene Chandler with the help of soul singer CeeLo Green’s silky, tuneful melodies. Kendrick again raps about his inner conflict, but in a manner of self-acceptance rather than one of opposition.
“untitled 7” is the album’s low point, featuring derivative flows and brittle trap beats that muddy the soundscape. Kendrick’s lyricism also nosedives during this song with lines such as “Santa's reindeer better have some ass, you b****." The saving grace of this track, strangely enough, is a lo-fi recording of Kendrick rehearsing “untitled 4” that Top Dawg slapped onto the end of the song. Kendrick displays infectious charisma as he imitates his female back-up singers and makes his producers erupt in laughter.
The album’s closer, “untitled 8," also known as “Blue Faces," contains verses from the first half of “Untitled 2” from Kendrick’s Fallon performance. The album version of “Blue Faces” deviates from the jazz instrumentation used on Fallon in favor of an electro-funk approach. Kendrick shows off his melodic sensibilities when he soulfully sings the chorus that he opted to rap in on Fallon. While I appreciated a different take on the song, “untitled 8” lacks the rhythmic drive, tenacious flows, and climactic finish present on the Fallon version.
untitled unmastered. is by no means a perfect album, but that’s not what Kendrick intended it to be. Although the songs are half-baked and the flows are less impassioned, Kendrick still displays the same poignant lyricism, vocal dexterity, and lovable personality that crowned him the best rapper in the world today. untitled unmastered. was not meant to break down barriers or impact society the way To Pimp a Butterfly did. It’s a collection of tracks meant to please his fans. Fortunately for rap lovers, Kendrick’s second-rate material is better than the vast majority of today’s rap music, providing a listen that is thought-provoking and exceedingly enthralling.