Kendrick Lamar Flaunts Casual Brilliance on 'Untitled Unmastered'

Surprise 'To Pimp a Butterfly' follow-up continues MC's virtuoso hot streak

Kendrick Lamar's new surprise release serves as a rough yet enthralling companion to last year's 'To Pimp a Butterfly.' Credit: Kevin Mazur/WireImage/Getty

Last night around 9 p.m., Kendrick Lamar dropped untitled unmastered. on iTunes as well as streaming services. The eight-track, 35-minute release consists of demo material from recording sessions that led to his 2015 landmark, To Pimp a Butterfly, with songs dated according to when they were recorded. But even as a collection of supplementary material to the instant classic that was TPAB, these demos and unreleased songs are casually brilliant.

These tracks demonstrate how TPAB's primary themes gestated during nearly two years of recording sessions. "Get God on the phone," he begins on "Untitled 02," echoing earlier raps like "The Blacker the Berry" that found him frustrated by the black community's lack of unity. "My hood going crazy/Where did we go wrong?" "Untitled 03" is an audacious call-and-response where Lamar uses ethnic groups to illustrate the universality of our dreams and desires. "What did the Asian say?" shouts out longtime backing vocalist Anna Wise. "A peace of mind," Lamar responds. 

Despite its modest title, untitled unmastered. has plenty of material that sounds polished. Recorded on September 6th, 2014, "Untitled 06" has a smooth and infectious jazz-funk groove marked by xylophone and flute, and a lush chorus from Cee-Lo. It could have easily served as a complementary piece to TPAB's "These Walls" and "Complexion (A Zulu Love)." "Untitled 05" is a thicket of hi-hat percussion and saxophone, a piano glissando from Robert Glasper, a vocal from Anna Wise and guest raps from Jay Rock and Lamar's TDE manager Punch. "Untitled 08," (unofficially known as "Blue Faces") bounces as hard as "King Kunta" with its hydraulic-pumping synthesized bass thump and Lamar's slangy flow. 

Many will recognize these bonus cuts from Lamar's string of incendiary televised performances. When he appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, the host announced he would perform "Untitled 02," but that track appears on untitled unmastered. as "Untitled 08." Lamar's widely hailed performance at the 2016 Grammy Awards found him rhyming over L.A. singer-producer Iman Omari's "Omari's Mood"; that beat, in slightly altered form, is the basis of "Untitled 05." He premiered "Untitled 03" on The Colbert Report in 2014. 

Of course, it's Lamar's subliminal punches at his rivals that are earning headlines. On "Untitled 07," a multi-part track co-produced by Swizz Beatz and his five-year-old son, Egypt, Lamar takes apparent aim at Jay Electronica when he raps, "Before you poke out your chest, loosen your bra/Before you step out of line, dance with the star/I could never end a career if it never start." Meanwhile there's rampant speculation (or perhaps a collective Internet fantasy) that when he harmonizes, "You just make me wanna drag you down to the ground … like bam, bam, bam," he's referring to his ongoing cold war with Drake. 

These supposed mixtape-level cuts are laced with moments of conceptual ingenuity. The album revolves a repeated chant: "Pimp, pimp! Hooray!" "Untitled 07" consists of multiple parts recorded between 2014 and this winter, and glides easily from a call to "levitate," and a wordless choral melody, to Lamar's broadsides against his competitors, before closing with tape hiss and studio chatter. Lamar may present himself at his most relaxed on the odds-and-sods project untitled unmastered., but he can't help but reveal his restless ambition.