By Thomas Infante
The most recent trend in hip-hop is one that has nothing to do with the actual music. Nowadays, the actual album release has become completely skewed. While some artists, like Kanye West, spend millions to generate media coverage for their album’s release, others, like Drake, opt to release albums with no promotion at all, to great success.
Kendrick Lamar has taken the most radical approach to this latter idea with his latest release, “Untitled Unmastered.” The eight-track collection consists mainly of leftover tracks from his 2015 Grammy-winning album, “To Pimp A Butterfly.” Each track is listed solely as “Untitled,” differentiated only by a track number and the date it was recorded.
For most artists, this could be a catastrophic, career-ending move. For Lamar, it’s just another innovation.
The downplayed release of the album reflects its unfinished and fragmented nature. Each song is a separate idea, rather than it tying into an overall theme as Lamar has done on previous albums. The only uniting factor is how unrefined they all sound. The album’s production is stripped bare and the result is remarkable. Sounwave, one of Lamar’s frequent producers, stated in an interview with Complex that Lamar “wanted it to feel 100 percent authentic.”
The instrumentation is similar to that of his previous album, with influences from funk and jazz music being the most evident. Bassist Thundercat plays on six of the tracks and contributes to the surreal feeling of the album. His bassline on “Untitled 05” is particularly noteworthy, with a driving and fluctuating melody that gives energy to the song. It also features interesting saxophone work from producer Terrace Martin.
After a while, the line between jazz and hip-hop begins to blur in the album. Much of the music creates a dreamy and sometimes-chaotic atmosphere. The opening track begins with dialogue of singer Bilal talking to a woman with whom he is having sex. It is uncomfortably overt and leaves the listener with no idea what to expect for the rest of the album.
The lyrics are engaging and thought-provoking. Lamar’s unfiltered thoughts continuously flow out with undeniable conviction. His style varies from rapping to singing, relying less on vocal production and more on his own ability. His voice and delivery are often determining factors of the music’s mood. In “Untitled 01,” the feeling is created by an aggressive stream of consciousness. In “Untitled 02,” it’s a haunting moan of nightmarish visions. In “Untitled 06,” it’s lighthearted and playful. In “Untitled 07,” it’s inebriated and repetitive.
The content is equally perplexing. In “Untitled 03,” Lamar raps about the concept of success from the perspectives of different ethnic groups. One of his verses explores white greed in America through Lamar’s relationship with the record industry. Lamar raps, “Telling me that he selling me just for $10.99 / If I go platinum from rapping, I do the company fine / What if I compromise? He said it don’t even matter / You make a million or more, you living better than average.”
He is frustrated that record executives would force artists to make profitable music, even at the expense of the artist’s core audience. The very existence of this album is proof that Lamar is right — even something as alienating and understated as “Untitled Unmastered” can be successful when executed correctly.
In “Untitled 04,” Lamar and company repeatedly sing the phrase “head is the answer,” over a minimal backing guitar riff. It seems purposely cryptic — it could be a sexual reference in connection with “Untitled 01,” or perhaps it refers to intelligence or peace of mind in connection with the Asian perception of success mentioned in “Untitled 04.” Maybe it’s a reference to Lamar’s suicidal thoughts discussed on track five when he raps, “Somebody said you bumped your head and bled the floor / Jumped into a pit of flames and burned to coal.”
It could be a reference to any, all or none of these and that is what is so appealing about the album.
A sprawling exploration of Lamar’s conscience, “Untitled Unmastered” is an original and introspective collection of songs that an artist concerned with profitability could never have publicly released. In the first track on the album, Lamar raps, “I made ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ for you.”
If “Butterfly” was for his fans, then “Untitled” is for himself. It’s an outlet for his inner demons.