Even when he releases what seems like second-rate songs, Kendrick Lamar remains on the top of the rap game. His most recent album, “untitled unmastered.,” was released on March 4, and while imperfect and incomplete, it is still a characteristically strong effort. He advances the psychological and politically charged themes from his previous album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” while also creating songs that could conceivably become radio hits (particularly tracks two, five and eight.)
The story behind “untitled unmastered.” is simple, just like the album’s release. While working on “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar had some leftover demos. These were songs that didn’t make the cut for various reasons — from deadline to content or thematic issues. On March 4, several months after the release of “To Pimp a Butterfly” and after the urging of NBA superstar LeBron James, Kendrick released these eight unfinished demos as “untitled unmastered”.
The central themes that Lamar explores in “To Pimp a Butterfly” are rehashed in this new album — racism, depression, materialism and his inner struggle with his role as a spokesman and representative for and of black culture and life.
In “untitled unmastered.” Lamar expresses self-doubt about his mission, while acknowledging the success of his previous album. On the first track, he raps, “I made To Pimp a Butterfly for you/Told me to use my vocals to save mankind for you/ Say I didn’t try for you, say I didn’t ride for you/I tithed for you, I pushed the club to the side for you/Who love you like I love you?” This introspection in the face of his outward achievements is impressive and expressive, but it carries over the themes from “To Pimp a Butterfly,” rather than offering something new.
However, “untitled unmastered.” is not meant to delve into new thematic content. Instead, it is a confident statement from an artist at the peak of his craft. Lamar is giving us a gift with the release of “untitled unmastered.,” allowing us to appreciate him even more as an artist and as a man. He is content to remain where he is in the game — even his second best work is still better and more self-aware than Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo.” In fact, compared to the tumultuous and ever-changing rollout of “The Life of Pablo,” “untitled unmastered.” could be considered the complete and superior contrast. While both offer introspective looks into their psyches, Kendrick is much more concerned with the world, and how he can make it a better place. West, while occasionally admitting to troubles that plague him, is far too concerned with himself and how great he is — not to mention his continual and unnecessary crude and misogynistic lyrics. Lamar is more thoughtful, and, as a result, more effective.
Perhaps the most interesting part about this album is the access we get to Lamar’s creative process. On several tracks, Lamar has simply left unrelated snippets of songs, or unorthodox changes during songs, or even the occasional impromptu shout to various production members (like at the end of “untitled 02” when he asks who’s doing the drums). For those interested in seeing a raw and genuine Kendrick Lamar, you will get everything you ever wanted on this album.
It is not often that artists will release unfinished material as an album. And when they do, often it is a feeble and unpersuasive effort, one that clearly demonstrates to us why that material remains unfinished. But it is different with Kendrick Lamar. During several songs, I found myself wondering how this song could possibly have been cut from “To Pimp a Butterfly.” It’s difficult to adequately describe just how good some of this newly released material is, and the fact that it is unfinished shows just how great Kendrick Lamar is right now.