Kendrick Lamar’s Web-crashing outtakes album is a mythic masterstroke

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On Thursday we got word of a surprise Kendrick Lamar album by way of music streaming service Spotify reportedly uploading the tracklist a day early in error.

It’s been more than two years since Beyoncé created a shift with pop albums surfacing online completely out of the blue, and it seems music streaming services are still working out the kinks (see also: Rihanna and Tidal). After first appearing on iTunes, and then a little later on Tidal and Spotify, the Lamar album sent the Internet into a tizzy all the same—even if untitled unmastered. isn’t exactly a proper follow-up to last year’s colossal To Pimp a Butterfly.

As evidenced by the album and song titles, untitled unmastered. is made up of eight unnamed, previously unreleased Lamar songs, the conception of which apparently goes all the way back to 2013. The songs all seem to have come from the TPAB sessions, and the sounds bear that out. The jazz that predominantly populated his previous project—the jittery horns, wandering bass lines, contemplative piano strokes, and drums to light the path—is all here, but this compilation is more free-form than free jazz.

These eight songs were part of a larger network of music that was eventually cut and edited into TPAB, and it’s easy to see both why they ended up on the cutting-room floor and why they are now seeing the light of day. The songs here don’t quite have the weight of those from last year’s most critically acclaimed rap album, nor the cohesiveness. untitled unmastered. seems to be all the coloring that went outside the lines.

Some of the same big ideas are present, like blackness, faith, and love—all fleshed out to varying degrees—but taken as a whole can seem more fragmented than a broken stained-glass window. 

There’s more of an expansive musical palette, but rather than traveling genres and eras to find all the bebop, funk, and quiet-storm soul, the album can mostly be delineated from early ‘90s L.A. hip-hop. The G-funk of West Coast production luminaries Dr. Dre and DJ Quik and the jazz-inspired rap of the underground hip-hop collective Project Blowed are combined and filtered through their offspring (like Thundercat and Flying Lotus, who both did production on TPAB) to make something that isn’t happening anywhere else in rap.

The guest performers on untitled unmastered. are also interesting. The only vocal flourish from outside Lamar’s camp is from CeeLo Green, the genre-surfing Atlanta crooner. That makes sense since this is basically a collection of unfinished demos, but the in-house studio musicians still serve to both keep the informal vibe and also to show off the talent Lamar’s label, Top Dawg Entertainment, has to provide. TDE’s lone singer SZA appears briefly, sounding even more mature and less imposing than normal. Lamar’s fellow Black Hippy Jay Rock joins him on a few songs, occasionally going back and forth like an old-school rap duo. Even the TDE label head Terrence “Punch” Henderson pops up as a guest vocalist.

As far as the lyrical content, untitled unmastered. is totally what is to be expected of half-baked outtakes from one of the most verbose albums in recent memory. Some of the same big ideas in TPAB are present, like blackness, faith, and love—all fleshed out to varying degrees—but taken as a whole can seem more fragmented than a broken stained-glass window.

Lamar sets the stage with a world going to hell in a handbasket and himself as the savior, or at the very least, “chosen.” He appears to wear that crown reluctantly: “See I’m living with anxiety, ducking sobriety/Fucking up the system I ain’t fucking with society.” He’s only motivated and capable of describing the ills, not of solving them. There’s a lot of talk of lost faith, and it isn’t until the song with CeeLo that Lamar finds any hope at all. Safely inside a wall of lush strings, he finds love. Of course, it is not a fairy tale love, and it mostly consists of him showing this woman his flaws and imperfections: “You know the male species can be redundant/I mean we love a woman and think we can satisfy her/Between the sheets, covers, and pillows”

The immediate standout track is “untitled 07 (2014-2016),” the first part of which has Lamar floating over a skittering trap beat. Here he’s leaving behind damn near every vice because drugs, fame, and, “love won’t get you high as this,” while he “Levitate, levitate, levitate, levitate(s).” Lamar’s mindset is summed up thusly: “Me don’t want problems… Me do want dollars.” The second part of the song (which was apparently produced by Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys’s five-year-old son Egypt) is Lamar gassing himself with rapid-fire verses. The third and final part devolves into a jam session with Lamar and a solo guitar as he lands at his conclusion, “Head is the answer.” Obviously he is talking about learning and the power of knowledge, but coming from the rapper who’s biggest rap single contained the line “girl, I know you want this dick,” it could very well also be a double entendre.

untitled unmastered. is not much more than a collection of outtakes and rarities. Two of these tracks were performed live on late-night television, and people will always want more Lamar music, but besides LeBron James, no one was begging for this. When a secret Top Dawg Entertainment project was announced in an Instagram post earlier this week, many rap fans suspected a release from one of the label’s lesser-known artists. But a Lamar release shifts the whole conversation. Now the clamoring for new music from SZA or TDE-newcomer Isaiah Rashad grows louder, the debates of Lamar being the best rapper breathing start to get reinvigorated, and the label gets a little extra money from all the streaming services. Not bad for a project with no new material that might have been fanboy fodder for another artist with another team.

Photo via Gozamos/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)