Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered. Roundtable Review

He released our favorite album of 2015; now he's back with the interesting untitled unmastered.
Aftermath/Interscope (Top Dawg Entertainment), 2016
Purchase: Amazon

8.1 / 10

Welcome to another Earbuddy Roundtable Review. To explain, Earbuddy assembles three or more writers to discuss a new album with each writer giving his/her thoughts on the release and their own personal score. Then an average score is determined for the album overall. For our latest Roundtable, Earbuddy writers Ryan Rogers, Alex Daniel, John Downey, and Nick Krenn will be reviewing Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered.

Album Background

Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly was an album that nearly every Earbuddy writer fell in love with. Not surprisingly, we voted it as our best album of 2015. Lamar has quickly followed that album up with a new release untitled unmastered., an absolute surprise if there ever was one. And after the debacle that was The Life of Pablo, Kendrick Lamar proves that not only is he the best rap musician currently, but he also knows how to handle the release of his music with perfect execution. At eight songs, untitled unmastered. is a quick listen. The songs are essentially leftovers from the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions, but I don’t think many of us have lost our appetite for that album. It only makes sense that we give this album a Roundtable Review.

Ryan Rogers:

Kendrick Lamar has come a long way from the days of Section.80 and his Overly Dedicated mixtape. Between then and now, Lamar has won grammies; made anthems for drinking (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”) and black prejudice (“Alright”, which was chanted by protesters at a cancelled Chicago Trump rally); got dreads and dabbed himself crazy. The transformation from aspiring Compton gangsta rapper to L.A. jazzy beat poet has opened avenues for the young artist that nobody could have imagined just a few years ago when Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City dropped.

Lamar’s fourth album untitled unmastered., comes unannounced, little under a year from the release of To Pimp A Butterfly. Kendrick’s trajectory in hip-hop is parallel to Radiohead’s discography: Section.80 is his The Bends, a proof of concept showing amazing potentical; Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is OK Computer, the most universally liked and the apex of his original style; To Pimp A Butterfly is Kid A, an experimental art project that pushes the boundary of the genre; untitled unmastered. is Amnesiac the jazzier sister record to the previous record.

The album’s song titles relate to different days May 28th, 2013 and 2016, whether they were recording dates or events in Lamar’s life, it remains a mystery. According to Bustle: “Aug. 19, 2014 (from “untitled 01 | 08.19.2014.”) was the night 31 people were arrested in Ferguson for protesting, June 23, 2014 (from “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.”) was the day hundreds protested the police shootings in Albuquerque, August 14, 2014 (from “untitled 04 | 08.14.2014.”) was the day President Obama spoke out about Ferguson and did not mention race — two of them (“untitled 08 | 09.06.2014.” and “untitled 05 | 09.21.2014.”) do not seem to. In addition to the dates in 2014, there is one in 2013 (May 28, 2013 from “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013.”): That date was the same date that an Arizona Judge found Sheriff Joe Arpaio guilty of violating the constitutional rights of Latino citizens by targeting them for traffic stops and unlawful detaining them.”

The music itself on untitled unmastered. walks down the same path as TBAP, except it takes on the darker jazzy side of the record and develops it into a singular cohesive sound. This record would be a better fit if it was released by Brainfeeder with the likes of Flying Lotus, Thundercat and Kasami Washington than Top Dawg Entertainment, although in some parts he relates back to his Compton past. The record starts out with a misleading rap innuendo intro provided by Bilal and then transitions to Kendrick rapping in biblical fashion by alluding to the books of Genesis and Revelations relating to the current tumultuous geopolitical climate happening in America, and Lamar’s chilling warning is prophetic: “(Another trumpet has sounded off and everyone heard it / (It’s happening) no more running from world wars / (It’s happening) no more discriminating the poor / (It’s happening) no more bad bitches and real niggas / Wishing for green and gold the last taste of allure / I swore I seen it vividly).”

Kendrick at this point, is searching for some sort of spiritual guidance or ancient wisdom to make sense of the chaos and on the Stevie Wonder-influenced “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.” he is ”(sick and tired of being tired / can’t pick a side, the Gemini)” and on “untitled 06 | 06.30.2014.” he explains : “(These metamorphic supernatural forces dominate what I see a Gemini, / duality personalities always conflict in me)”. This astrological quandary has Lamar deep in thought and introspection and the connection with Geminis and music is further explored in my new blog Musicstrology (shameless plug).

The third track “untitled 03 | 5.28.2014” is a brief parable of race in America, asking Asian, Indian, Black and White men for varying perspectives on how to live life and where he belongs in the big picture. The album sort of dwells in this nihilistic gloomy universe with the help of Thundercat creating that atmosphere that has been echoed in his previous work with Lamar on TBAP and his solo work. Although the songs on untitled unmastered. are produced by the likes of Ali Shaheed Muhammed (A Tribe Called Quest), Swizz Beatz and DJ Khalil, the album sounds organic and rough around the edges with the exception of “Untitled 07 | 2014-2016” which sounds like a Future/Metroboomin collaboration that demonizes drug use rather than glorifies it.

Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered. continues his streak of creative genius that few can match and it’s a gift to follow such a legendary artist slowly master his craft.

Ryan’s Score: 8.7

Alex Daniel:

The internet has been ripe with commentary for both Kendrick and Kanye’s new albums. Where does To Pimp A Butterfly fit into the current sociopolitical narrative? What does The Life of Pablo say about its creator and the state of music? There’s a lot about Kendrick’s new untitled unmastered. that feels like an objection to these kinds of comparisons. It’s short, it’s crude, and it was released without any promotional material or fanfare whatsoever. We didn’t even know it existed until all of a sudden it did.

But don’t come into untitled unmastered. thinking that it will be another Good Kid m.A.A.d Cit or To Pimp A Butterfly. In the internet’s search to categorize and classify what untitled unmastered. is, many will tell you this is Lamar’s Amnesiac. In other words, it’s a sister / companion album to an album that most people will consider a sea change, a masterpiece. While those comparisons are interesting, Lamar’s latest is more like the My Iron Lung EP, if we’re sticking to Radiohead references. The cuts from untitled unmastered. are not good enough to be on To Pimp A Butterfly. The beats, the rough production, and the lyrics aren’t up to To Pimp A Butterfly‘s high standards. In and of itself, this isn’t a horrible thing though, as these tracks are better than what most hip-hop artists could pull together in a career. Lamar’s strength, however, has been his mastery of the album as a format. When he abandon’s that, like he does on this record, we’re left grateful that these songs have found the light of day but slightly disappointed it wasn’t all more cohesive.

Alex’s Score: 7.0

John Downey

Good victory lap
Certainly not unfinished
More of this shit, please

John’s Score: 8.7

Nick Krenn:

It’s quite clear that many of these songs were made during To Pimp A Butterfly and didn’t make the cut for whatever reason. However, I firmly believe all of the RIGHT songs did make Butterfly. Really untitled unmastered. serves a purpose of keeping Kendrick fresh on our minds while he’s working on his next definitive album and also it works as a sneaky way of stealing thunder from Kanye West after he attempted to release his new album. The songs included on untitled unmastered. aren’t named (it is untitled after all), but we’re given dates for their inception. The jazz/funk fusion heard on To Pimp A Butterfly exists within many of these songs and sounds as fresh as it did on Butterfly while also feeling more genuine than most songs in modern hip hop. Album opener “untitled 01 | 08.19.2014.” begins with a swerve, making you believe it’s going to indulge sexual fantasies, only to evolve into an apocalyptic nightmare that’s urgent and frightening. No other rapper is creating music this weird or interesting. The one complaint that can be levied at untitled unmastered. is that it’s too short. But really, was there more that could have been included? What we’ve gotten is enough to make us hungry for Lamar’s next album, and hopefully that comes very very soon.

Nick’s Score: 8.0

Final Score

8.1 / 10