Album of the Week
17 - 21
Artist: Kendrick Lamar
Title: untitled unmastered
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
Released: March 2016
by Justin Van Heukelom - March 17, 2016
Thanks in large part to a LeBron James tweet, Top Dawg Entertainment released a Kendrick Lamar project titled “untitled unmastered.” on the night of March 4. This semi-surprise release is quite unusual when looking at the superstar rapper’s track record for a number of reasons: all of the songs have no titles (other than track numbers and recording dates), no listed features (yet they are there), and were untouched by TDE sound engineer ‘Mixed by Ali.’ Also, the EP’s artwork is comprised of bland, dark green suede material reminiscent of a dusty sofa. Yet what is especially unusual about “untitled unmastered.” is its unresolved themes, considering that well-refined concepts have become somewhat of an artistic staple in Lamar’s discography.
Rather than giving us a project full of completely new ideas, Kendrick instead deals us eight unmastered demos from various studio sessions recorded for his most recent album, March 2015’s “To Pimp a Butterfly.” And likewise, similar themes from “TPAB” are scattered throughout the project, such as Kendrick’s struggles with his faith and his rough adjustment to fame, while all coherently meshing with his analytical worldview. Some of the masterminds largely responsible for “TPAB’s” signature funky, jazzy sound are also featured on the EP, including the under-recognized musicians Thundercat (singer/bass guitarist) and Terrace Martin (saxophonist/producer).
Within the first couple of tracks, Kendrick is painting for us his dystopic perception of Black America with emotions from the enraged to the desperate, begging God for answers as to why life appears so dismal. In terms of sonic atmosphere, the second track in particular features glum saxophone playing by Terrace Martin, adding much to the track’s depressing tone.
Another highlight is the aggressive “untitled 05 - 09.21.2014,” the first verse (performed during his Grammy’s performance) which features Kendrick rapping from the perspective of a hopeless black male that “once upon a time… used to go to church and talk to God… now hollow tips is all [he’s] got.”
On the first part of the penultimate “untitled 07 - 2014-2016,” Kendrick spazzes out over a bouncy beat about the highs of excessive money flow. The smooth and funky eighth and final track, first performed on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon back in January, further expresses Kendrick’s adjustment to new money in the song’s chorus with the clever double entendre “blue faces” (about both sorrowful-looking faces and the new $100 bills that have literal blue-inked strips near Franklin’s face). The final verse on this song is perhaps the most remarkable on the EP; in it, Kendrick meets a local of Cape Town (from his 2014 trip to South Africa that he rapped about on TPAB) that critiques African-American culture. It’s up to you to decide if this man’s argument is distorted or articulate.
All in all, this EP is really nothing more than a collection of cohesive demos with no resolutions; it serves as an extension of sorts to “TPAB.” However, Kendrick Lamar may be the only current rapper than can make an EP of unreleased demos sound this enjoyable which is fully credible to his strict work ethic. One can’t even imagine what his next fully fleshed out project will sound like after listening to this foundationless yet fantastic piece of work. 8/10