When the inevitable 2010’s nostalgia kicks in, you can expect to read about the antiquated “surprise album release” on your iLid in between content pieces like “17 Social Networks You Probably Tried for a Month” and “Which Doomed Reboot of an 80s/90s Property Are You?” Even a scant two years after Beyonce made everyone lose their shit, the surprise release feels played out: sometimes you get If You’re Reading This… or a decent Wilco LP, sometimes you get a bad U2 album or duped into paying attention to Tyga. 2016’s already seen a pair of exhausting surprise releases itself with Rihanna’s ANTI finally dropping after nearly a year of “any minute now” anticipation, and the borderline performance art that’s been the The Life of Pablo release.
Yet, for untitled unmastered. the tactic makes perfect sense. From the title to the track names (“untitled 03| 05.28.2013”) to that “musty recording studio wall” green for the cover art, every non-musical aspect of the project is as unassuming as possible. And I think “project” is going to be the term I stick with for untitled unmastered.: although true it’s a collection of To Pimp a Butterfly demos, it’s more thought out than a demo comp with its own arc, from fiery beginning to interlude to sprawling 8 minute penultimate song to relatively straightforward conclusion (those same traits DQ it from mixtape status, where rappers tend to chase down every idea they have). At the same time, though, this is easily a looser creation than any of Lamar’s albums.
This is, to put it shortly, a really good look for Lamar. For everything great you can say about To Pimp a Butterfly, it sometimes felt like an album designed to avoid surface pleasures; even the more straight ahead tracks featured either slippery flows or were bookended by narrative conceits. untitled unmastered, meanwhile, calls more to mind those swing for the fences live performances, and not just because “united 03”, “untitled 05”, and “untitled 08” draw from his Colbert Report, Grammy verse, and Jimmy Fallon stints respectively. It’s because while all the jazz elements are still there, this project is about rapping first. Weird come-on intro aside, “untitled 01” is just Lamar rapping about the apocalypse with enough fury and desperation to make you think he’s seen it live, and it’s just thrilling to hear him go off. Lamar even sounds like he’s enjoying himself.
That’s another thing about untitled unmastered.: it’s the only Kendrick Lamar release that could credibly be described as “fun.” The project mostly fixates on insecurities, truth, and gets highly emotional, but also gets viciously sarcastic (“The salary, the compensation, tripled my cock size”) and downright funny at the same time. There’s a stretch in “untitled 02” where he blatantly apes Drake’s high-pitched “watch me stretch out this rhyyyyyme on every liiiiine” flow in a way that takes all the heat out of it and makes Drake sound ridiculous. It’s a blindside on a song about the push-pull between living rich and the grim realities of Compton, and damn near hilarious as a result. Lamar gets more mileage out of the recurring, dead-panned “PIMP PIMP……hoorayyy” chant than he ought to, as well. But the lightest part of the project is without a doubt the last few minutes on “untitled 07,” which is just Lamar and some friends mucking around in the studio over some guitar licks and parts of a hook that came up earlier. So much of the guy’s career has centered on his Hip-Hop Messiah status that it gets tiring; a few minutes of jokes goes a long way. I thought it was a drag on the otherwise great first two parts of “untitled 07” at first, but it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite parts of the project.
These moments of levity make the emotional center of “untitled 05” hit that much harder. Over somber jazz, Lamar, Punch, and Jay Rock unpack some of the awful shit they’ve done or considered, doubts in their abilities, grief, and anger. Lamar’s first verse–the one that oscillates between drunken soul-bearing and revenge fantasy, and was debuted at this year’s Grammy’s–is the one that hits hardest, mostly because for once the ambiguous date on the track could mean something. The track is subtitled “9.24.2014,” and “Why you wanna see a good man with a broken heart? Once upon a time I used to go to church and talk to God” means a hell of a lot more when you consider what might have broken a lot of hearts around that time. Add in mournful sax and piano, a head-tripping bassline from Thundercat, and Anna Wise’s great hook and you’ve got a downright compelling song.
Not that untitled unmastered. lacks for quality. Surprise releases can look gimmicky, but it really was great to hear new Kendrick Lamar tracks without the weight of expectations. And, by releasing a low-stakes/high-reward cut like this, he’s probably dialed back some of the hype for whatever his next full length will be. Right now, I keep gravitating toward “untitled 08”, which first appeared on Jimmy Fallon. I find it fascinating because it’s still Lamar in full try-hard mode (I’ve written before about his inability to sound casual), but over that shuffling Michael Jackson beat, he’s got a potential radio single. If he’s sitting on more like this, who knows where he could go next?