Kendrick Lamar delivers a looser, more freewheeling set of tunes on “untitled unmastered.”
B-sides, bonus tracks, and outtakes are usually released to show us the sides of artists that we don’t get on their standard commercial projects. Whether it’s studio banter, unfinished sketches, failed genre experiments, or alternate versions, these tracks are windows into the minds of those who usually give us polished, exhaustively edited final products– unscripted, unfiltered, uncut. When it’s your everyday run-of-the-mill rapper, outtakes might contain stuff you’d otherwise never hear from the artist in question. When it’s someone who’s time and time again proven himself to be exceptional, his outtakes contain stuff you’d otherwise never hear in hip hop, period.
The dates included in every song title on Kendrick Lamar’s 35-minute-long untitled unmastered suggest that pretty much everything here is a remnant from the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions. It’s almost surprising to learn that so much was left off of an album that was so well-contained and clear in its focus, but this is often how geniuses work (more on that later). Many of the musicians whose fingerprints sculpted TPAB’s indelible sound are present, and so are the overarching themes with which Kendrick wrestled on that album, but save for a few well-executed transitions, it’s not all tied together very tightly. TPAB was the book, untitled unmastered are the extended essays Kendrick originally wrote as chapters but didn’t fit properly into the final product.
I say “essays” because plenty of untitled’s tracks have themes as clear as TPAB tracks like “Complexion” and “How Much A Dollar Cost.” At this point, it seems like Kendrick is unable to write songs or even single verses that aren’t really about anything (call him the anti-Wale), with every word seemingly deployed in service of a storyline that may or may not involve characters, metaphor, and/or religious imagery. We start off with judgement day (“Untitled 1”), then move to a counterpoint to “Momma”‘s hometown optimism (“Untitled 2”), and then get a dissertation on racial stereotyping (“Untitled 3”). There’s no clear throughline, as there was on TPAB, but this project gives us a more complete understanding of the connections that exist between all of the various themes Kendrick has wrestled with in his post-good kid music. His songs might be masterclasses in how to contain a complex narrative to five minutes of lyrics, but as effective as they are as standalone pieces, none exist in vacuums.
Kendrick’s grasp on the way every aspect of his existence intersects is better than any other rapper’s, each event in his life seemingly mapped out with clear causes, effects, and historical relevancies. This is why he’s able to employ deft poetic tricks like switching out God for TDE president Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith on “Untitled 2,” comparing his record deal to a mortgage on the ensuing track, and link genocide, capitalism, and the prison industrial complex to each other in just a handful of words on “Untitled 5.” Most other artists struggle with statements as bold as Kendrick’s, such as “Fear me like y’all fear God,” “I can put a rapper on life support,” or any of the racial stereotypes he lists on “Untitled 3,” because it seems like they simply haven’t put as much consideration into the bigger picture. You still get the feeling that Kendrick comes up with some of these in the heat of the moment, but also that he goes back and makes sure that every boast, generalization, and broad statement he makes is justifiable, or at least defensible. He can still sound as joyously ignorant as your favorite nihilist rapper, but if there’s one thing you can be sure that Kendrick is not doing, it’s ignoring the world around him.
untitled unmastered fits into a long legacy of album spillover projects that dwarf the legitimate albums of artists’ peers. After Brian Wilson had a breakdown and abandoned the high-concept Smile album, the Beach Boys swept up the remaining pieces and made Smiley Smile, still one of the best examples of ’60s psychedelic pop that we’ve got. On The Dock Of The Bay was just a compilation of Otis Redding’s singles, B-sides, and covers cobbled together by industry executives after his death, but it’s still his definitive release. J Dilla died before he could complete work on The Shining, but with minimal polishing from his friend Karriem Riggins, it was released and sounded like a complete project to most of the public. Most of all though, untitled unmastered resembles an album released by Radiohead fifteen years ago.
In 2000, Radiohead shocked their fanbase by releasing the experimental Kid A. Much like Kendrick, they followed up a hugely critically acclaimed album (OK Computer for them, GKMC for Kendrick) with a very divisive one that veered into different styles of music than they had explored up to that point. In both cases, the second album became the more critically celebrated album despite many fans preferring the ones that preceded them. A year later, Radiohead gathered eleven songs from the Kid A sessions and released Amnesiac, an album that’s substantially less magnificent than its predecessor, but still weirder and more compelling than the vast majority of contemporary alt rock. That’s untitled unmastered to a T.
To Pimp A Butterfly will (whether you like it or not) be remembered for generations to come– for its music, political messages, and the larger sociopolitical climate in the United States at the time of its release. untitled unmastered will most likely not be, as it pales in comparison to Kendrick’s prior two projects. But it’s still a vital document, especially for Kendrick fans looking to better understand his enigmatic mind. And beyond that, it’s a warning to other rappers that K Dot’s “Drafts” folder will very likely shit on whatever album they’ve been putting years of work into. As Kanye West said so fittingly after Kendrick said his piece on “No More Parties In LA”: “SCARY.”