Slick Rhymes and Fusion of Tones Brings Form to Lamar’s ‘untitled unmastered’

3 Stars

It’s hard to know what to expect from Kendrick Lamar’s surprise new album, untitled unmastered. Each song is labeled “untitled” and unnumbered, with a date attached. At first, it would seem to simply be a release of scrapped tracks that didn’t make it onto his stellar last project, To Pimp A Butterfly, or a compendium of non-album cuts in the vein of J. Cole’s Truly Yours EP or Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Friday releases. untitled unmastered is, however, much more unified on the whole than a simple collection of random tracks and, like Lamar’s other projects, it seems to develop a theme and message during its half-hour-long runtime. So is it an album? A mixtape? Maybe it doesn’t matter.

In a time when Kanye is still editing his last album a month after its release and Chance the Rapper continues to produce wildly popular music independent of a label, it doesn’t matter what package the music comes in. It may be that Lamar doesn’t want us to know exactly what to make of the album, given its surprise release and eccentric character. Regardless, Lamar’s world of fans was surely ecstatic upon finding out about untitled unmastered.


 


Sonically, the album finds Lamar diving ever deeper into his signature fusion of jazz, funk, and hip-hop, as well as playing with the styles of his contemporaries. His sound has also grown more uniformly dark in comparison to Kendrick’s last project, a clear move away from optimistic songs like last year’s single, “i. Many of the songs on the album would feel perfectly comfortable on an A Tribe Called Quest album, and several moments feel as though they might be directly sampled from a John Coltrane record. Simultaneously, many of those same tracks borrow from the styles of other major rappers, notably Drake, a former collaborator of Lamar’s. Sections of “Untitled 02” and “Untitled 07” carry the unmistakable feel of last year’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, sifted through a K-Dot filter. It might not quite be correct to suggest that he is imitating the styles of recent albums, since many of the songs are dated long before IYRTITL was released, but it does indicate that Lamar has been developing along with the rest of the industry.

As always in Lamar’s music, it is easy to get lost in his expansive sound, neglecting his equally profound lyrical content. Cornrow Kenny (Lamar) hardly ever stays far from political commentary, and race-conscious tracks like “Untitled 03,” which he had previewed on TV before To Pimp A Butterfly was even released, are standard fare. untitled unmastered is decidedly darker, opening with an apocalyptic jeremiad and then discussing racial prejudice and cynically analyzing the impact of Lamar’s music. He is alternately supremely confident in his music and unsure of himself and his own development. He tackles serious topics, including depression and anxiety. While TPAB was focused on a large political movement, Kendrick concerns himself on untitled unmastered with problems on the scale of an individual. Even on “Untitled 03,” in which he raps about an entire culture, he puts these lyrics in the perspective of a single “white man” or “Indian.” Kendrick still has a lot to say, even if the way he says it has shifted.

Kendrick Lamar’s music has been so uniformly good since his Section.80 debut, it has practically been a drug for the hip-hop community, and he knows it. “Untitled 07” lists love, fame, and several other things that, “won’t get you high like this.” Besides the fact that it is, by design, less polished, untitled unmastered isn’t quite on the same level of quality of Kendrick’s previous major releases. Still, the songs on this island of misfit tracks feel magical and are bound to please Kendrick’s most faithful fans.. untitled unmastered has all the trappings of a K-Dot recordrace-conscious rap, introspective themes, slick rhymes, and great beats. Years from now, this release is unlikely to be remembered alongside the other legendary albums he has already released, but it’s certainly enough to tide fans over until the next one.

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