Now approaching its first birthday, To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar’s masterful sophomore album, remains as gripping as ever. As is the mark of a classic rap album, its knots continue to unfold with each new listen, and it’s doubtful that an album of such richness and density — in any genre — will eclipse it in the near future. untitled unmastered., a release of demos from that album, is a natural extension for a project with such grandeur.
That role is important to remember with this release — this is not a standalone Kendrick album. It’s perhaps his first official project that can be played as effectively shuffled as front-to-back. Indeed, lacking unique titles, many of the tracks can blend together like a single burst of jazz-inspired spontaneity. Each, save “untitled 07,” are labeled with specific dates. Whether the tracks were completed in full on those dates or not, the sense of rapid, prodigal improvisation is nevertheless obvious on this release. Take the final part of “untitled 07,” dated vaguely “2014-2016.” For nearly four minutes we hear Kendrick playing with spontaneous lyrics and tongue-in-cheek jokes, a look into his process of creation. Audio that closes out “untitled 02” sees Kendrick corralling his band together: “Who doing the drums?”
But along with the playful, tangential saxophones and the free-form jam sessions, untitled unmastered. above all underscores the meticulous perfectionism that has increasingly come to define Kendrick’s projects. “untitled 03,” dated May 28, 2013, debuted on “The Colbert Report” over a year and a half later in December 2014. That version differs from the version here, released as “untitled 03.” The intro is absent, a drum pattern added, a saxophone interlude replaced. Parts of the fourth verse from the live version of “untitled 08,” originally performed on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” are moved to an entirely different track, “untitled 02.” For a collection of demos, it’s an unusual attention to detail.
That attention to detail and Kendrick’s undeniable rap genius produces an “unmastered” work that is far more effective than most rap albums could ever hope to be. “untitled 02,” a standout, is a characteristically TPAB-era-dreamy track, with a one-liner that will surely be repeated constantly over the next few months — “get Top on the phone!” The marathon of a second verse is one of the most impressive here, though it has plentiful company on this release.
“untitled 01,” the project opener, is another example of Kendrick rapping at the top of his game. Flying in after a lengthy interlude, he wastes no time getting to business, describing at a dizzying speed a world of apocalypse and sin. “No more running from world wars, no more discriminating the poor,” he warns with an immediacy reflective of our current state of affairs.
Kendrick’s enormous preoccupation with the state of the world has exalted him above the lowly pettiness that’s sometimes common among rappers. “You n****s fear me like y’all fear God” he spits on “untitled 07,” a tease more than an actual insult. While much has been made of the apparent cold war between him and Drake, Kendrick hovers at a level that mainstream rap can’t touch.
Kendrick’s track record of consistent excellence acts as both a testament to his skill as well as a warning to the previous rap kings. One can’t help but mention Kanye West’s botched The Life of Pablo release. It’s no doubt a great album, but the separation between it and untitled unmastered. is telling. Where TLOP is unusually messy for a Kanye West album, untitled unmastered., despite its off-the-cuff nature, is yet another measured and cohesive release by Kendrick. Where TLOP was at times misguided (yes, that Taylor Swift line), Kendrick has yet to make a misstep.
Plenty of rappers jostle to sit at the high throne of rap. But when the rhetoric subsides and the talent sits alone, it’s Kendrick’s claim that holds the most legitimacy today.