Last night, word came out that Kendrick Lamar might be releasing a new album. Lo and behold, a few hours later, ‘untitled unmastered.’ was released. Made up of songs recorded between mostly 2013 and 2014, most of the tracks sound like tracks leftover from Kendrick’s 2015 masterpiece, To Pimp a Butterfly. While the story of this album’s release is entertaining (apparently it was spurred on by Lebron James), the music is no joke. Even if these songs weren’t included on TPAB they’re cut from the same cloth as those tracks, and that cloth is handspun vicuna.
In fact, if you consider this a companion piece to TPAB, it all fits together really well. Musically it maintains the jazzy, rich soundscape feel, with a few exceptions. There are a ton of horns, ambient noises, and the instrumentation and sound on the album are very well constructed. This is music where every piece fits together like a puzzle and it works perfectly for the messages that Kendrick delivers. There are, though, two songs on the album outside of the saxxy vista and they are absolute bangers. “untitled 06 | 06.30.2014” features an amazing Ceelo hook and funkier instrumentation that remind you of classic Motown. “untitled 08 | 09.06.2014” runs headlong into G-funk territory, making it impossible for you not to bob your head along with the beat. All together the sonic package of untitled unmastered. is as interesting as everything Kendrick has released.
What separates this album from the noise of pop-music, though, are the thoughtful lyrics that are his stock and trade. He’s the poet laureate of humankind right now and these tracks only add to the sense that Kendrick is fully connected as a person to the times. There are layers to these songs (and, of course, those on TPAB) that cover a huge swath of modern existence. In one stanza Kendrick can deconstruct social issues, talk about the effect that these issues–and their context in the larger world–have on him as a human being, and then resolve to try and be a better person. What he does with economy would take most people a trilogy of books, and it’s incredible to listen to it in action.
The imagery that he weaves is beautiful, frightening, and current. When, in “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014,” he says
world is going crazy / where did we go wrong
it’s a tidal wave / it’s the Thunderdome
who doesn’t get a mental image of some current event in their head? There’s a feeling of unsettlement in the world right now and Kendrick communicates this feeling better than anyone else. He does this using a lot of religious and apocalyptic iconography that is very evocative. The first track, “untitled 01 | 08.19.2014,” is the most dire of them, but the album does seem to lighten tonally the further you go. From external destruction to internal reflection, it’s an amazing journey through some really personal feelings about the things that control his decisions and what the real purpose of things are.
In “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013” Kendrick lists the gods of a bunch of different people. To some this controlling force is Buddha & the self, to some it’s land & the earth we inhabit, to some it’s sex, to a lot of people it’s money. It’s a recurring theme, on both this album and it’s twin, and one that seems to take up a lot of Kendrick’s thought. Does making money really make you happy? Is the pursuit of money a worthwhile endeavor, or is it something we’re told to do that keeps the human race from really connecting to one another on a personal level? A possible answer, it seems, is that the only way we can make it through our trials, the only way we can move on past our most destructive voices, is if we do it together.
Floor to ceiling, this album is great. Along with To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar is shaping a conversation about who we are as a country and who we are as human beings. With so much noise, so much hatred, and so much trouble in the world, how lucky are we that the most important and best musician of 2016 is asking himself, and us, to think critically and reasonably about these problems and issues?