Review: Kendrick Lamar’s ‘untitled unmastered.’ Is a Bullet With ‘Butterfly’ Wings
Release Date: March 4, 2016
Label: Top Dawg Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar didn’t have to do this. Not even a year has passed since he released his grand statement, To Pimp a Butterfly, an intimidating epic that was a consensus pick as Album of the Year — critical unanimity unseen since, well, his last album, 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. But where city at least tread traditional hip-hop tropes and the old narrative of young kid, bad influences, and the internal struggle between them all, everything since has seen Kendrick pulled in about a hundred different directions as opposed to one or two. He also didn’t have to do this thing, exactly: an eight-song, 34-minute miniature more substantial than just a handful of outtakes, but also in execution not as complete or united as his album-ass albums (starting with 2011’s Section.80). Imagine if Radiohead followed up Kid A with Amnesiac, only in demo form, and it arrived .
For all its acclaim, though, To Pimp a Butterfly was sometimes severely misunderstood at the same time as it was being endlessly argued about. It felt like some were praising the album as a humanist achievement rather than a supreme musical work — something to appreciate rather than listen to repeatedly. In a sense, untitled unmastered. works as a corrective of this. Somewhat predictably, a few have claimed this “album” — in its brevity, small scale, and more analog-sounding jazz/funk/soul sound — is better than the preposterously layered Butterfly.
As a landing spot for songs we’ve heard before — “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013.” from a now-legendary Colbert Report performance, “untitled 05 | 09.21.2014.” from just a few weeks ago at the Grammys — untitled unmastered. can feel like the clearing of a table, rather than a feast. But in this lies its power and greatest asset: With the stakes low, Lamar can air out his demons, have some fun, bask in the afterglow of the Grammys (and his performance, which inspired none other than LeBron James to hit him up on Twitter to ask for its release only to see that actually happen). Again the ceremony saw him snubbed for an Album of the Year statuette. No AOTY Grammy? Here’s a surprise album. Macklemore does the conventional album release thing a few weeks ago only to sell a mere 51,000 copies and thunk on the charts at No. 4? Here’s a surprise album that will almost certainly move more units and inspire more people. You want that Colbert song, a favorite among message board types? Here it is, finally.
So, no, he didn’t need to do this. But he did because he’s a generous artist in his prime — he’s Steph Curry pulling up from half-court, placing the line “I made my moves with shackled feet” on the album’s warmest and most radio-friendly song, with the image of him shuffling onstage at the Grammys in a prison jumpsuit still fresh on everyone’s mind.
The record makes the most sense if you read it as an extended interlude from To Pimp a Butterfly — imagine if that album was 115 minutes long as opposed to 79, and this is a particularly potent stretch of that run time, united in atmosphere and mood. Starting with a disorienting dirty-talk intro (which only sets up further corporeally centered songs and lines down the road, important on a record substantially concerned with black bodies) Lamar speaks with God, letting us know the headspace this record occupies: “I made To Pimp a Butterfly for you / Told me to use my vocals to save mankind for you… I tithed for you, I pushed the club to the side for you / Who love you like I love you?”
“Untitled 02 | 06.23.2014” kicks off with the first occurrence of a repeated mantra throughout the album: a preacher-like “pimp-pimp, hooray!” shout. It’s half-celebratory, half-mocking, an attempt to unite the congregation with his cutting interpretation of “pimping,” which is used in context with the same moral implication as the title of his previous album, but also used in a commercial sense, in the context of black artists in a black genre still being forced to submit to white industry standards and white demands. On the powerful “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013” he raps, “A piece of mine’s / That’s what the white man wanted when I rhyme / Telling me that he selling me just for $10.99 / If I go platinum from rapping / I do the company just fine,” and it’s clear to see whom Lamar views as the pimp and who’s getting pimped.
But for all its weighty talk on race, religion, and the politics of rap music (not just racial and industry politics, but like, “Might tell Obama be more like Punch” politics), untitled unmastered. doesn’t threaten to go off the rails nearly as much as the equally weighty Butterfly. It’s punctuated with Lamar’s wit and personality, who assists a repeated motif/melody in “They say the government mislead the youth, youth, youth” like a particularly woke youth minister before giving way to another repeated motif/mantra in “Head is the answer.” This is the dualistic dynamic that opens the record up to listeners and motivates the Hot Take that it’s an even better album than Butterfly. The strong threads that bound Section.80, good kid, m.A.A.d city, and Butterfly are still present here, but only implied. Unmastered. feels more like a prayer circle or hip-hop cypher than an album weighted down by a capital-C concept.
It’s worth acknowledging that Lamar is in his prime; it’s what makes even that “Head is the answer” talk feel important, because everything is implicitly charged with meaning. Maybe the only answer to systematic oppression is corporeal gratification. Maybe a mantra like “We gon’ be alright” is too forcibly optimistic to carry people through tough times.
And that in-demand Colbert song, “untitled 03,” is not really a great song — it’s essentially a dialogue punctuated with a powerful coda — but it is a great message delivered with passion and an insight unequivocal from anyone else working today. It’s hard to think of another artist who would inject so much of himself and his spirit into a project that’s not even totally done less than a year after releasing a record the first black president of the United States declared his favorite of 2015. On that song, the hook is “I shall enjoy the fruits of my labor if I get freed today,” and Lamar — putting the industry on its toes with a surprise release, placing himself at the forefront of the conversation weeks after Kanye’s endless album rollout and before anyone else had the chance to steal headlines in 2016 — is enjoying those fruits. He didn’t have to do this, but he did. Pimp, pimp.