It’s hard to think of another artist in 2016 with more pressure on him than Kendrick Lamar. He’s expected to be commercially viable, socially resonant, creatively brave, artistically excellent and most vexingly, fit into that wholly unique Kendrick sphere of providing a perspective that is at once transcendent and deeply intimate.
Into those expectations, a surprise album—inasmuch as a 35-minute, 8-song collection of untitled tracks can be called an “album”—might seem a little foolhardy, but it’s also an interesting way of pushing back on that pressure. Everything from the album’s unassuming name to the song titles—all dates—seems designed to make it clear that this album is anything but that which it most clearly is: a proper follow-up to To Pimp a Butterfly. These are clearly meant to be taken as scraps from the cutting room floor, but other artists would call this their masterpiece. Even when Kendrick isn’t trying, he can’t help but impress.
Kendrick has been confessional, sometimes uncomfortably so, about his love/hate relationship with the crown that the world has rushed to place on his head. To Pimp a Butterfly was about a lot of things, but it was mostly about Kendrick himself: his relationship with the music industry, white America, black America, celebrity and his own soul. It was about how he gets rich and famous while Trayvon Martin gets shot dead. Kendrick feels that.
In light of all that, it’d be tempting at first blush to call Untitled Unmastered a breezier, less fussed over Kendrick. It’s less dense and has a pleasingly cast-off feeling about it that invites instead of demands repeated listenings. But those repeated listenings do show that it’s not as much a reaction to To Pimp a Butterfly as one might have at first thought. As evidenced by the fact that Kendrick has brought more than one of these songs to perform on late night appearances over the course of TPAB’s promotional cycle, Untitled Unmastered is more of a companion piece. Or, as he himself called them over Twitter on Friday, “demos.” None of them are titled (they each have an associated date.) One track has about four minute of what appears to be a practice jam The fastidiousness appears to be stripped away from the proceedings.
But that’s only first blush. Kendrick hasn’t abandoned the freewheeling, soupy saxophones or experimental jazz that made TPAB such a rewarding listen, but here that’s injected with some honest-to-God rap. He didn’t do a lot of real rapping on TPAB, preferring to spend the bulk of the album in a sort of cadence-free spoken word mishmash. The rap that, like on “Alright” and “King Kunta”, was thrilling reminder of just how good Kendrick can be. But on the whole, spitting bars didn’t really seem to be the primary thing on Kendrick’s mind.
It may still not be the primary thing, but it’s back in the forefront on Untitled Unmastered. We still don’t know much about how this whole album came together (having Lebron James request it over Twitter is a nice stunt, but it definitely feels like a stunt), but it’s easy to see Kendrick feeling the need to stretch his old emcee wings again. Songs little “Untitled 02” (which definitely feels like a giant middle finger to Drake) and “Untitled 07” (which finds him energized, spitting in a hyper-articulate, “Blacker the Berry” flow) will please fans of Good Kid MAAD City who found To Pimp a Butterfly lacking in beats. Untitled Unmastered isn’t lacking in beats, but the more you listen to it, the less cast-off it feels. It’s more spacious, but it’s not hurting for Kendrick’s favorite subjects: race, religion, and the weird shifts his fame brings to his experience of the two. If that sounds heavy, well, it is—but there’s a lightness to the production here that makes it all go down a little easier.
Which isn’t to say it’s exactly commercial. Kendrick remains pretty committed to not putting his name on anything that would make for an easy radio single (other than the last track, “Untitled 08,” which would make a great soundtrack to a smartphone commercial), and most songs here continue in the same jazzy, ‘70s influenced, g-funk excursions he debuted on his previous album. Untitled, Unmastered proves everything we already suspected about him: He’s one of the most important voices in popular music. And he’s impressive even when he’s not trying.