Kendrick Lamar surprise-released (well, almost) a new project on Thursday night called untitled unmastered. Despite its brevity (the collection features just eight tracks) and in-progress aesthetic (the songs are, according to Lamar, unfinished demos from his To Pimp a Butterfly sessions), any new music from K-Dot is worth poring over. As such, SPIN staffers and contributors offer their first impressions below.
Andrew Unterberger: Why yes, I would like to hear eight new Kendrick Lamar songs that sound like side three of To Pimp a Butterfly — the meditative, mid-tempo corner — extended to a 35-minute mini-album, released with no expectation of expectations. The charm of untitled unmastered.‘s mere unlikely existence is such that asking for any kind of coherence or consistency of quality from it feels greedy, but sure enough, Kendrick’s new “project” settles into a groove narcotic enough for the MC to have ranted about its evils somewhere towards the end of Butterfly. Which isn’t to say that untitled unmastered. doesn’t have much on its mind — the on-record debut of the eviscerating “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013.” (a.k.a. That Song He Played on Colbert) dissuades that notion pretty quickly — but just that it’s gratifying to hear a version of Kendrick that’s not too concerned with following up one of the greatest albums of his generation to make a pass at your mother over bluesy lo-fi guitar noodling.
Early Score: 8/10
Israel Daramola: The gift of a truly great, once-in-a-lifetime rapper is that they can take and pull off any number of chances. With Kendrick Lamar’s latest project, the eight-track untitled unmastered., I’m once again reminded that he probably shouldn’t be able to make such messy, sprawling, and undeniably black records while keeping his mainstream success and cultural cache so sturdily intact. His career continues to be a deeper, darker, and further-maddening dive into his own head; he’s fighting against the Faustian bargain of celebrity and success by drowning himself in Bitches Brew-style jazz, West Coast G-funk, and Harlem Renaissance-like poetry, and is rewarded with more celebrity and success.
The new record doesn’t capture the same energy of the live “untitled” performances Lamar has given on television over the past year and change, but it does have an unruly, rugged charm that’s engrossing and benefits from not being overproduced or bogged down with interconnected skits and superfluous metaphors. Rating untitled unmastered. almost feels counterproductive; much like with Butterfly, it feels like putting a period on something in need of an ellipsis. We’ll probably be debating it by the end of the year (and for many more to come), and I’m likely to change my attitude on it various times in the coming months. Nothing Kendrick has done lately has been easy to embrace, and yet we reach out for him regardless.
Early Score: 8/10
Harley Brown: “Put a price on my talent, I hit the bank and withdraw.” This line, off of the stutter-stop stunner that is “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013.,” struck me so hard that the hairs on my arms stood up as I lay listening to untitled unmastered. at 5 a.m. this morning. Lamar’s latest, a collection of To Pimp a Butterfly-era demos, is filled with moments like that: how his voice cracks, quavers, and eventually expires on “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.,” the gravelly dirty talk that open “untitled 01 | 08.19.2014.,” his quick-whittled whispers on “untitled 04 | 08.14.2014.” — but that one cuts especially deep because of the context surrounding this selfless offering’s arrival.
Commercial viability is being demanded of Lamar (from “the white man,” as referred to on “untitled 03,” whose cruel visage pops up throughout the entire record), even as commercial viability robs him of recognition. First Macklemore, then Taylor Swift, took what should’ve been his — likely just because their records sold better. And untitled unmastered. feels like a sigh of defeat in acknowledgement of that, even though Lamar knows he already has a shot at claiming the title of “Best Record of 2016” with a set that’s every bit as unfinished as The Life of Pablo. “Am I mortal man or make-believe?” he creaks on “untitled 06 | 06.30.2014.” Either way, we’re not worthy.
Early Score: 9/10
Dan Weiss: One of the myriad voices on untitled unmastered.’s “untitled 07 | 2014-2016” rises from the studio din and declares, “This is a 15-minute song, we just jammin’ out,” along with some other improv. So now maybe Lamar’s 78-minute 2015 opus will get the credit it’s due for self-editing. This ethereal, loosely corralled conflation of mood with grooves ain’t To Pimp a Butterfly’s Amnesiac or even its New Amerykah Part Two. It’s Kendrick’s More Like the Moon. The first two tracks dissolve upon contact, the final two pick up steam, and the lone exception, “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013.,” had more urgency in its telecasted version. The best thing I can say about these outtakes is that their amorphous elasticity bodes well for another Kunta’s Groove Sessions tour; the worst is that this jazz-tinged crowdsourcing is what people who don’t listen to the Roots’ albums think they’re missing. Early Score: 7/10
Sheldon Pearce: Kendrick Lamar’s performances of (what were then known as) “Untitled” and “Untitled 2” felt like prognostications of greatness, an MTV Unplugged set unfolding over several months. Airing on late-night TV (The Colbert Report and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, respectively), these small intimate shows backed by a jazz band showcased his explosive talent in real-time. The live renditions of this pair of rap suites bookended the promotional cycle for Lamar’s transcendent third studio album, To Pimp a Butterfly, and were imbued with its energy. They were tied to its essence, yet somehow still adjacent to its tightly wound thread of micro narratives. That same distant connection is what binds the songs on untitled unmastered., a series of tracks recorded between 2013 and now that live in TPAB’s sonic universe but don’t always adhere to its natural laws.
On “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.,” Lamar raps, “Cornrow Kenny, he was born with a vision,” and you can see the frame coming into focus. These studio outtakes and demos lend perspective to the To Pimp a Butterfly experience. He talks, on “untitled 02,” about adding a player to that LP’s “Mortal Man” and “King Kunta.” On the second half of “untitled 07 | 2014 – 2016,” he walks a studio crowd through how the track might come together — its intended length and how it’ll feel to play it once it’s finished. This all offers insight into his process, along with a solid string of unreleased and CDQ-version jams. The lack of a carefully plotted narrative arc doesn’t just give untitled a sense of freedom — it makes it enjoyable.
Early Score: 8/10
AVERAGE SCORE: 8.0