MAX FERTIK ’19
Even at this stage in his career, it is pretty clear that Kendrick Lamar will be an artist who is canonized not only as a musician but as an individual with a transformative voice that communicates freedom. The sound that Lamar creates is more than just hip-hop. The music website Pitchfork.com writes that Lamar’s albums culminate together to color Lamar himself as a “reluctant Messiah” figure.
Lamar went through enormous changes as a result of the earlier LPs ‘Overly Dedicated’ and ‘Section.80’ where he experimented with a 90s alt-rap sound, giving a more introspective and modern take on the works of his earlier Compton counterparts.
Lamar’s name would only grow in the music industry until the hotly anticipated sequel to his early work was released. That sequel was his classic album ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City’ through which he told the world an autobiographical tale about a young Black male growing up and searching for meaning in his life in a city of gangsters.
Then more recently, Kendrick Lamar released ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, which follows up his previous album beautifully. This album tells the tragic and hopeful story centered around the metaphor of a caterpillar breaking out of the cocoon of Compton, and growing into a butterfly who has discovered his purpose in life.
Earlier this month, though, out of nowhere, Lamar released a short surprise album, stylistically drawn from the same vein as “Butterfly” but otherwise different from anything else he had ever released previously.
‘Untitled Unmastered’ is exactly what its title seems to say it is. It is simple, it is humble and it acts essentially as a modest epilogue to ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’. The entire body of the album is underlined by a mysterious and spacey rumble, while each untitled song offers a distinct range of genres: from soul and jazz to hip-hop and trap to the avant garde and bossa nova, blending them together and breaking down the boundaries that come with attributing a song to one particular genre. Kendrick has given to his audience a familiar work, something that they feel like they have heard before on “TPAB.” For some reason Lamar’s fans are alright with this, because the work is so well executed and complex in terms of content. By deciding not to release a fully mastered and relatively chopped up body of work, Kendrick obviously sacrifices some sophistication. But oddly enough, he proves something incredibly revolutionary in its release. Unlike its early spring release counterpart, ‘Life of Pablo’ by Kanye West, ‘Untitled Unmastered’ takes the music scene by surprise with its totally unexpected release, without any flashy teasers or promotion. Lamar shows listeners a world that already thinks extremely highly of him- one where he can make a big splash with a short handful of B-sides that don’t have any radio value.
As for the notable individual pieces, the opening song, supposedly written late in 2014, mixes some sexy Barry White-esque dialogue with a typical Kendrick ‘TBAM’ bars over a bass-heavy shuffle.
Lamar takes up a Moses persona and seems to speak to God and act as his servant, a leader in an otherwise pedestrian world. Kendrick embraces his ego when he shows how God told him to use his songs to save mankind, and the rapper defends himself in one of the best lines in Untitled Unmastered’: “Don’t say I didn’t try for you, say I didn’t ride for, or tithe for you, or push the club to the side for you” asking God himself to be grateful for Kendrick’s work.
Another highlight of the album is the second song, which assumes a more commercially friendly trap style beat and some typical saxophone doodles. The third song is almost entirely driven by a complex drum beat. “Untitled 02” may become one of Lamar’s best pieces once it is mastered a
bit. The big chunk of bars that starts with “Cornrow Kenny, he was born
with a vision” hover suspended above the song’s aura and jumps headfirst into the song’s laid back hihat tempo as soon as Kendrick develops his phrases. These melt into the jazzy trap beat. In terms of content, he comes back to a common topic from the earlier ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’: urban escape and what it means for his mortality. “Get God on the phone, said it won’t be long, I see jiggaboos, I see styrofoam” The culturally powerful line sticks out as Kendrick plays with different vocal modulations in the studio. Many might remember that he played a more ambient jazz version of “02” on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon which is vastly different to the studio version, but equally valid to his jazzy hip-hop vibe. The third song is more notable for its culturally flagrant lyrics. Its broad modern stereotypes about several racial profiles are so specific and psychological that they make the listener uncomfortable. With the help of a few guests of Kendrick, Bilal, Anna Wise and Thundercat, “Untitled 03” offers some incredible racial commentary and commercial wisdom making it an essential track of this body of music.
Some other bright moments of ‘Untitled Unmastered’ come from tracks “Untitled 06” and, of course, a blisteringly metamorphic track, “Untitled 07.” The first gives the audience a more funky style of vocals supplemented by the croons of the one and only Cee Lo Green and some more conversational verses by Kendrick about his upbringing and the qualities that make him different. Under these blended vocals is a subtle bossa nova beat along with some smooth orchestral voices and an occasional Hammond organ sound during the “Let me explain” chorus. A definitively relaxing track that conjures a jazzy aura and has a stinging individuality. On the latter track, there is a vastly different attitude present that doesn’t seem like it could even be on the same album as “06”, but it is. This song contains a list- of intoxicating phrases about several things that “won’t get you high as this” followed by the repeated word: “Levitate.” All of this is underlined by another moody synth sequence and a convincing trap beat until the song morphs into an eight-minute dissertation on his modern outlook over a simple drum beat and a trilling guitar with some very jazzy studio demos to end it all. Kendrick croons “head is the answer, head is the future” subtly bringing back his goofy genius persona blending innuendo with a spiritual message.
In the end, what we are given is a hard-packed thirty-three minutes of pure music, no fluff. With so little to prove now as a widely respected and thoughtful artist, Lamar gives nothing to the audience but music. No hype, no titles to alter interpretations no massive conclusions declared, simply Kendrick Lamar and his unafraid, jazzy band. They’re exactly who they claim to be, artists. Nothing more, nothing less.
MAX FERTIK ’19