We’re up to our molars in data-seas of dissonance, and most of us are flipping out, at least a bit. Why wouldn’t our best artists mirror that? In the wake of Kanye’s work-in-progress psychodrama comes this left-field Kendrick Lamar surprise drop – a similarly unfinished-feeling, just as all-over-the-place, yet somehow more decisively indecisive set, which functions as a victory lap following the triumph of To Pimp A Butterfly. “Pimp, pimp: hooray!” goes the cheer that reappears throughout the record. It feels like an earned and inclusive celebration of a singular artist’s excellence, achieved against all odds.
Of course, nothing’s that simple in the mind of Lamar, and after torching the Grammys, his embers are still popping. This eight-track, 35 minute set begins in a bedroom, incense burning, Lamar sexing up a lover over soul-jazz, bass-and-percussion foreplay. But before we hit the two-minute mark he’s seeing rapists and murderers, “death faces screaming in agony,” “atheists for suicide/planes falling out the sky/trains jumping off the track.” And this is a jam about uplift.
The songs are not titled per se, simply numbered and dated, although it’s unclear exactly when they were finished. “untitled 01” is tagged 8/9/14, although Lamar rhymes about how he “made To Pimp A Butterfly for you,” referencing an LP that didn’t come out until nearly a year later. Lamar premiered versions of “untitled 03” and “untitled 08” (then known as “untitled 2 (Blue Faces)”) on Colbert and Fallon, respectively, and they’re changed up a bit here. The former lacks the firespitting Black Power outro; the latter appears minus a final verse and outro, sacrificing fire for a tighter, more upbeat album-closer.
Ultimately, this is a set of odds and ends, inspired freestyles and funk jams; many are likely Butterfly outtakes, albeit none with the laser-focused resonance of “The Blacker The Berry” or “Alright.” But there’s brilliance in even Lamar’s cast-offs, and an intimacy here that makes this more than just a gift for his ravenous fans –it’s an illuminating look at a red-hot rapper’s craft. And coming from a dude thinking hard about the price of success while creating art for a multinational corporation (listen to the single full-blast verse of “untitled 03,” about being sold for $10.99), it’s a shoot-from-the-hip-gesture that feels empowered. The titular pun is clearly intentional.
The most telling track on untitled unmastered. may be its shaggiest. On “untitled 07,” around a hypnotizing chant of “levitate levitate levitate levitate,” a devil-on-the-shoulder character delivers a drug-addled come on, with the promise of dollars and various ecstasy flavors. It’s a familiar riff concerning what fame does to your brain, delivered with unfamiliar verve, as Lamar tries to figure a sustainable way to embody King Kendrick. “The flattery of watching my stock rise/the salary, the compensation tripled my cock size / I run through the stop signs/with no brake fluid, just premium gas” he notes, adding “This is the future/the master mind/until my next album/more power to ya!” It’s followed by the sound of a gunshot – the sound that disappeared Martin, Malcolm, Trayvon and on – and a chillingly orphaned beat (composed, if stories are true, by Swizz Beats and Alicia Keys’ five-year-old son). Then, suddenly, you’re eavesdropping in a room, listening to the sound of a song being made up with a bunch of friends over a handful of bass notes. Folks are laughing, goofing around, and words emerge, about the government and getting pussy and the struggle to keep your head on straight and make something beautiful and life-affirming as if it’s all one thing. The point being that, ultimately, it is.