7 first-listen highlights from Kendrick Lamar's Untitled Unmastered
Late Thursday night, Kendrick Lamar released Untitled Unmastered, his first collection of new songs since 2015’s Grammy-winning To Pimp A Butterfly. Though the project — which hovers in a gray space between LP, EP, and rarities collection — came as a surprise, Lamar’s label, Top Dawg Entertainment, had hinted that such a release could be on its way: TDE head Anthony Tiffith posted a photo to Instagram on Monday detailing upcoming releases that said he had to “Get Top on the phone” with regard to a new Lamar album.
The songs aren’t entirely foreign to fans either. Lamar has made a habit of debuting untitled, unheard material on late night shows, doing so on The Colbert Report, The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, and, most prominently, as the finale of his daring Grammys performance in February. All three of those tracks are included on Untitled Unmastered, along with five others with titles noting they were recorded during the To Pimp A Butterfly sessions.
And fans of Lamar’s instant classic will find Untitled thrilling for many of the same reasons as its precursor. Like Butterfly‘s 16 tracks, Untitled finds the 28-year-old MC breathing rarefied hip-hop air as he bends his cadences at a whim, peppers verses with zany humor, and weaves intricate narratives about police violence and racial conflict.
Untitled Unmastered. demands repeat listens and unpacking — but here are some of the initial highlights from Lamar’s newest project.
The dates in each song title might not necessarily represent when Lamar finished given tracks.
Whether it’s “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013” sounding like “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” or “untitled 08 | 09.06.2014” mildly resembling “These Walls,” much of Untitled clearly stems from the Butterfly sessions. Lamar confirmed as much hours after the project’s release, but the rapper — who’s famously secretive about his creative process — left the exact timelines of these songs ambiguous.
Take “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.” Lamar lists the date of June 23, 2014 and the track’s free-jazz style echoes Butterfly‘s abstract moments. In the song’s outro, he even instructs an unknown listener to include the same drummer on the Butterfly tracks “Mortal Man” and “King Kunta.” But a lyric in the second verse — “Sounwave caught a Grammy last year” — references the success of one of Lamar’s producers who just won his first Grammys in February for his work on “These Walls” and “Alright.” Did Lamar go back and record a fresh verse over a track from June 2014? Was the entire song just inspired by that date? Or was that reference presciently included all along?
Untitled Unmastered features more subdued moments than To Pimp A Butterfly.
From “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst” to “Mortal Man,” Lamar has always sprinkled low-key moments among high-octane cuts like “King Kunta.” But Untitled particularly emphasizes this aspect of his music, from stripped-down incantations on “untitled 04 | 08.14.2014” to Lamar’s possibly off-the-cuff freestyle in the latter half of the eight-minute “untitled 07 | 2014 – 2016.” Songs like “The Blacker the Berry” and “Swimming Pools (Drank)” are some of the rapper’s greatest accomplishments, but Untitled spurns those styles, making for a different listening experience.
The project is also Lamar’s jazziest to date.
On Butterfly, Lamar collaborated with jazz-oriented musicians like Thundercat and Kamasi Washington (from Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label)—and Untitled keeps up those sonic explorations. If anything, the unifying theme behind Untitled could be that its tracks would’ve been too jazzy to fit on Butterfly. “untitled 5 | 09.21.2014” — which Lamar premiered on the Grammys — focuses on wailing saxophones, an acrobatic bassline, and vocalist Anna Wise’s singing for nearly two minutes before Lamar jumps into the fray. It’s an instrumental aesthetic that’d sound at home on Washington’s 2015 triple LP The Epic.
But jazz influences don’t trump Lamar’s hip-hop roots.
Part of what made Butterfly so enticing was how Lamar blended soul and jazz elements with the G-funk of his Compton predecessor Dr. Dre. So while Untitled features plenty of unusual, jazz-inflected noises, it’s also a hip-hop project through and through: Skittering drums underscore the first part of “untitled 7” and the piano ornamentation on “untitled 1 | 08.19.2014” bears an uncanny resemblance to the iconic riff from 2001’s “Still D.R.E.”
Lamar continues his lyrical focus on the theme of being an outsider.
On Butterfly, the MC grappled with the challenge of remaining humble despite his newfound wealth and fame. Many of that album’s highlights focus on his efforts to remain a part of his community (“Momma”) and family (“u”). That thematic narrative continues on Untitled, perhaps providing the biggest hint that these songs did in fact originate from the Butterfly sessions.
Lamar begins “untitled 7” by referencing the things that won’t get him high — fame and Bentleys among them — but juxtaposes those lines with hollow braggadocio later in the song: “The flattery of watchin’ my stock rise / The salary, the compensation tripled my c–k size.” This combination of temptation and humility provided much of Butterfly‘s depth, and Lamar’s tendency to position himself as a social outsider — on two of Untitled‘s tracks he alludes to being an “alien” — sets him apart from other rappers.
CeeLo stops by.
Lamar has worked with high-profile vocalists before — look no further than last year’s Grammy-winning, Pharrell-featuring “Alright” — but CeeLo’s appearance on “untitled 6 | 06.30.2014,” packed with swirling strings, soulful guitars, and whistling flutes that perfectly complement the famed singer’s contributions, is a showcase for him. Between Lamar’s references to “sheets, covers, and pillows” and an outro promising “I am yours,” it’s also one of his most romantic songs yet.
Even Lamar listens to public opinion.
The MC premiered some of these songs on national television despite external ambivalence about ever actually releasing them. But YouTube rips be damned: Lamar’s a perfectionist and ultimately caved to calls to release fine-tuned versions of the tracks, which had received near-universal praise. In an interview published after the Grammys, Lamar said he had a “chamber” of unreleased material — which likely prompted TDE’s Tiffith to encourage Lamar to release the music.