If Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered. was released in, say, 2006 rather than 2016, it’s unlikely to have been a standalone release. A collection of demos from the To Pimp a Butterfly sessions, the eight-track release (EP? LP?) barely clocks in at more than a half an hour—it’s more of a bonus disc, a companion, than anything else. It gives us a closer look at the mind of the artist; a peek at the cutting room floor, which is often as illuminating as what actually made the album.
If To Pimp a Butterfly is the Gospel of Kendrick, the tracks on untitled unmastered. are the parables that didn’t make the final edit. That some of these songs were deemed either not good enough or not the right fit for TPAB proves how meticulously he shapes and sequences an album. He stands out among popular musicians for the thoughtfulness and care he puts into crafting his albums — showing respect for a vaunted medium that has becoming increasingly irrelevant in today’s music industry. Even the title hints at something more significant than just audio quality; Top Dawg Entertainment president Punch told Billboard that it references how Kendrick and TDE are “definitely trying to break chains, musically and socially.”
So if Kendrick Lamar has no master, but needs years to carefully construct album-length statements, how does he maintain his cultural relevance in a hyper-speed news cycle that demands artists churn out fresh content regularly, lest they be supplanted by the newest hotness? For one, untitled unmastered. has to be considered in the context of Instagram, The Life of Pablo, and DJ Khaled on Snapchat. In 2016, artists are giving fans a peek at their creative process; for someone like Kanye, it’s scattered, manic, constantly in flux. Kendrick is more reserved (especially on Twitter) and doesn’t really do mixtapes; the view he’s given us into his creative process reflects that.
In terms of staying relevant, it doesn’t hurt that he’s become one of the most dynamic and exciting performers in contemporary hip-hop. Even if you weren’t lucky enough to catch one of Kunta’s Groove Sessions, his performances on television’s biggest stages set him apart from lesser rappers. Not content to just “shut up and play the hits,” Kendrick creates original medleys of his hits and unreleased material to perform on TV, even going so far as to write material specifically for those appearances. Frequent collaborator Terrace Martin told NPR last year that Kendrick wrote the song that would become “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013” the day before he performed it on The Colbert Report.
And while we’ve heard some of the songs before, on Colbert, Fallon, and the Grammys, there’s an element of newness to hearing these studio-quality (if unmastered) versions of the songs. With the official release, we learn that the tracks feature collaborations with the crew from TPAB, including vocalist Anna Wise, Thundercat, and Terrace Martin, and TDE cohorts Jay Rock and Sza. There are some big names as well, with Cee Lo Green and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad lending their considerable talents to “untitled 06 | 06.30.2014.” Thundercat’s bass line on “untitled 08 | 09.06.2014.” evokes a similar groove to TPAB’s “These Walls,” and “untitled 05 | 09.21.2014” builds off of a beat from Iman Omari’s “Omari’s Mood.”
At its best, Kendrick Lamar’s music is more spiritual than religious, even if it often alludes to Christian dogma. But conceptually, untitled unmastered. continues with the themes of blackness, spirituality, guilt, and responsibility that he explored so colorfully on TPAB. It’s meant to sate the rabid fanbase, hungry for anything new at all from “King Kunta,” but if we’re lucky, it might also be enough to motivate one of hip-hop’s most underachieving talents into rising to the occasion. Is it a coincidence that Jay Electronica was taking jabs at Lamar right around the time he blew everyone’s mind at the Grammys? Regardless, it’s telling that Kendrick only needed a few bars to savagely dismiss him, as he does on the second part of his three-part suite “untitled 07 | 2014 – 2016”:
“You niggas fear me like y’all fear God / You sound frantic, I hear panic in your voice / Just know the mechanics of making your choice and writin’ your bars / Before you poke out your chest, loosen your bra / Before you step out of line and dance with the star / I can never end a career if it never start”