Album Review: Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered (2016 EP)

Kendrick Lamar‘s To Pimp a Butterfly has been hyped as much as it has for some very good reasons and we’re still yet to see how that album will continue to grow, influence, and inspire the next generation of discerning emcees, who will hopefully seek a similar impact to the one Lamar has had over the last few years.

What Kendrick did on his universally acclaimed 2015 project was step away from surface expectations (something most of his peers cannot afford to, or just cannot, do) and towards the very roots of Californian hip-hop; roots soaked in an undying need for exploration and experimentation, that sprout from the likes of George Clinton and Bootsy Collins, the same ones that inform producers like Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and Knxwledge, all of whom were clear influences on the direction Lamar took TPAB, along with the footprints of a young, politically charged Ice Cube, a funkafied DJ Quik, a radical Public Enemy, an oddball OutKast, a slick Digable Planets, a poetic Freestyle Fellowship, and a multiplex The Coup.

The record was full of bold moves, Kendrick challenging himself to make something entirely different to the hugely successful Good Kid, m.A.A.d City, enormous and complex in sound and concept but coherent enough to stand as a complete package; drawing on the aforementioned artists but still maintaining the very unique arsenal of styles that helped Lamar nab the contemporary hip hop throne on which he currently sits.

Kendrick gave us Hip Hop marinated in Funk, Soul, Jazz and Blues, a cerebral mix of several different idioms, welded together by a strong cast built from the likes of the aforementioned, and new-gen Jazz heads like Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, and Terrace Martin. All these musicians were very much part of a band with Kendrick as the frontman, taking anything these artists threw at him and morphing it with this style or that, constantly re-shaping along with the instrumentals. Essentially, he looked back to the 90s in order to move hip-hop forward, marrying the west’s funk with the east’s jazz, bringing on some soul and blues from the south and focusing it into one remarkable record.

Much like Jazz, the tones and textures were of paramount consideration on TPAB as they are on untitled unmastered, this new stealth-release that has been sprung upon us, an eight-track, thirty-five minute project with unreleased studio sessions recorded over the past few years; his The Lost Tapes if you will. It remains consistent with the style of TPAB, there’s a lot of funk and modal jazz swirling in the background – and sometimes foreground – of these hip hop beats, Kendrick is shifting his voice all over the place to delineate different perspectives, and there is a mix of fiery self-reflexive soul-searching and broader comments about being a young African American in modern society. There’s a lot to digest here despite the lack of a consistent arc as opposed to TPAB or GKMC.

Though, rather than sound like eight disconnected tracks wrapped up in a neat little package, there are connections strewn throughout these songs, motifs that one would also find on TPAB speaking to the consistency Kendrick kept when recording the LP.

“Head is the answer” is a refrain here, alongside themes of independent thought, self-respect, race, righteousness, and religion; Kendrick opens with the latter after a strangely sexual come-on, prophesising Judgement Day and referencing ‘The Ground’, the metaphor he was most concerned about in his faux-conversation with 2Pac at the very end of To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s a paranoid and passionate track over the beginnings of what sounds like an urgent beat that was abandoned by producers Hit-boy and DJ Spinz at the last minute, leaving it to Kendrick’s dramatic raps to get it over the line, a violent performance topped only by “Untitled 05”, where Lamar taps Punch and Jay Rock to tackle class, race, and frustration; a platform tainted only by a hyper-repetitive drum pattern that overloads on the hi-hat, eating up the otherwise beautiful background that’s built with a swirling sax, bluesy bass, and Anna Wise‘s gorgeous vocals.

“Untitled 02” is lifted with jangling keys and a deflated saxophone, sparse with the bass and shaping Kendrick’s flow into several different styles, trembling before he manages to get in touch with Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, after which he spits an outstanding finale with a laser-focused cadence that perfectly fits the beat.

It’s Kendrick’s understanding of how to use his voice to create theatre on any given track that makes his music so compelling, and it’s clear that he had mastered this skill long before these studio sessions even begun. You’ll hear it all throughout untitled unmastered, most impressively on the aforementioned “Untitled 02”, the steady “Untitled 03”, and the woozy three-parter “Untitled 07”, a song that was seemingly recorded over a period from 2014 and 2016, cutting and pasting three songs into the one, the second of which was impressively produced by Egypt Dean, the five-year-old son of Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz, containing the similar no-frills, staccato drum programming sound of his dad’s earlier beat-making days. The final part of “Untitled 07” seems superfluous for a project that’s only 35 minutes long, but speaks to the raw and straight-forward aesthetic of it all, allowing us to fly onto the wall of a To Pimp a Butterfly studio session while Lamar sings “Head is the answer/head is the future/don’t second guess yourself”.

The DJ Khalil-produced “Untitled 08” is a perfect package of p-funk to end the album on a high note but it’s the lush lounge vibe of “Untitled 06” that remains the album’s standout cut. Produced by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, the laid-back track features a stunning cameo from Cee-Lo Green, who hasn’t sounded this vital in a very long time. It’s not as mercurial or dramatic as the rest of the album, rather just a nice number that follows through from start to finish.

While it may lack the structure of Kendrick’s previous work, this project gives us a look at the cutting room floor of one of the most important and divisive albums of the past few years, showing that even Lamar’s off-cuts are meatier than anything many of his peers could even hope to produce at their peak.

Review Score: 8.8 out of 10 AU-APPROVED