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Kendrick Lamar - Untitled Unmastered (Album Review)

Wednesday, 09 March 2016 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

First, a caveat. ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, Kendrick Lamar’s genre-fusing opus from last year, did more than just win a few awards. It raised the bar for the entire hip hop movement and turned this writer into something of a Stan.

Lamar is very much at the ‘genius’ stage of his career as far as critics are concerned, so he should feel comfortable enough to make artistic detours with no fear of consequence. Duly, the surprise release of ‘Untitled Unmastered’, a collection of eight nameless outtakes and demos from sessions for ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, represents a celebration of an achievement rather than a polished follow-up.

It comprises unique snapshots into Lamar’s recording process, offering insights much like a documentary would. As a result, we’re exposed to abandoned motifs, humorous anecdotes and moments of spontaneity.

This lack of focus may grate with listeners hungry for a cohesive project. For example, the second half of Untitled 07 features a jam session where Kendrick causes a room of people to laugh like hyenas by aimlessly freestyling for four minutes.

Yet this can’t be dismissed as a glorified b-sides compilation, simply because the songs are too well put together. Untitled 07’s better half is catchier than the vast majority of ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ and funk number Untitled 08 would have fit perfectly on the tail end of the album. A reshuffle could also have made room for Untitled 03, an insightful essay on race that elaborates on issues raised on Complexion and The Blacker the Berry through call and response.

There are notable differences that make this collection feel oddly distinct, though. It is less rap-based, with Kendrick’s vocals wrestling with free-flowing jazz progressions in a variety of ways. On the stunning Untitled 02, he sleazily croons over intermittent sax, eerie synths and trap drums, while he adopts a more refined approach when teaming with a reinvigorated Cee Lo Green on Untitled 06.

His rhymes are also somewhat detached from the narrative he presented on ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’. On the apocalyptic Untitled 1, for example, he recaptures the urgency that made his combative verses on Control and Black Friday so memorable. Presenting images of inner city riots and “planes falling out the sky”, Kendrick abandons meditative approach to aggressively convey a dystopian nightmare or moment of liberation, depending on your interpretation.

Moments like this make you question whether the project is intended as a thematic departure or natural sequel. It’s more than possible that these songs were initially cut precisely because they didn’t follow the flow or structure of ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that this is Kendrick’s victory lap and there’s even an ad-libbed refrain of “pimp, pimp, hooray” scattered throughout. The fact that these lo-fi recordings are as good as any mainstream rap record released so far this year is just a bonus.

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