After many taunting hints, Kendrick Lamar has finally delved into his “chamber” of unreleased music to produce a fourth full length album, Untitled Unmastered. On first glance this is an album stripped back to its bare bones; Kendrick seems to be giving nothing away. The vague title is matched by songs named simply with a variety of random dates throughout the past three years, and it is even unclear whether these dates refer to when the songs were written, recorded or even inspired. The sheer impenetrability of the album is intriguing, a fact Lamar is clearly aware of having just announced a contest on Twitter challenging anyone to unravel meaning behind the songs. However, one thing that is clear is that the lack of structure on this album brings the music to the fore, allowing the songs to speak for themselves, and they definitely have a lot to say.
It all begins with a deep and provocative spoken intro from Bilal, immediately setting the tone for the album: the innocence of the “lamb” contrasted with a highly charged sexual atmosphere. Lamar then throws us in the deep end with a graphic apocalyptic description, his desperation highlighted in the accelerated beat. This first song brings to the fore the themes of sex, race and religion which pervade this album. In untitled 02, however, the album takes a more personal twist and we see a damning but accurate prediction of the success of To Pimp A Butterfly. Again, Kendrick’s desperation is highlighted as he repeatedly begs, “Get God on the phone,” demonstrating his desire to remain close to his roots in Compton despite his new found fame. The song also introduces the jazz influences prominent on Lamar’s previous albums, a trembling saxophone solo complemented with improvisational piano.
This jazz theme is continued in untitled 03, the song which most clearly encapsulates Kendrick’s views on race. Asians are defined by their spirituality, Indians by their land and heritage, Blacks by sex and Whites by money. This simplistic yet accusatory narrative attacks the White majority, suggesting they have somehow compromised Lamar’s talent by asking for “A piece of mine’s”. untitled 04 reflects this idea of resisting confinement, with inspiring phrases such as “Don’t second guess yourself” paired with Lamar’s soft whispering creating a euphoric, ASMR-like effect. This positivity continues in the jazzy and tuneful untitled 06 as Lamar encourages listeners to embrace their flaws through a conversation with a woman whom he describes as “the goddess of the odd”. Along with these two, untitled 08 is perhaps the most funky and animated track, and has to be my pick of the album. Reminiscent of King Kunta, with the repeated slogan “blue faces”, the thick and almost psychedelic beat with added choral elements makes it impossible not to dance along. However, the upbeat music is contrasted with reflections on poverty, “little broke boy and babies” with Kendrick perhaps reflecting the positive mask society attempts to put over hardship.
The epic eight-minute long untitled 07 gives a narrative of emotions that condenses all the themes discussed on the album through three parts seemingly recorded over a two-year period. Religious allusions are mingled with reflections on sex and politics as Kendrick provides a powerful message: that nothing will get you as high as art, the music that allows him to “levitate”. He also makes many references to songs such as For Free? from To Pimp A Butterfly which again links these two albums. untitlted 07 draws the two albums together, demonstrating a link more significant than the dates they were produced. The interludes of studio outtakes add to the intensity of the track and reflect the “unmastered” element of the album, creating an intimate and more personal feel than on his previous, more cleanly finished albums.
After such a seminal work as To Pimp A Butterfly, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who first listen to Untitled Unmastered with some trepidation, concerned that I wouldn’t be bowled over by it in the same way as I was by his previous albums. I think its clear however, that all of these songs hold the same overwhelming musicality and message that only Kendrick is able to produce. Indeed, I don’t think there is one song on the album that wouldn’t easily fit in among those on To Pimp A Butterfly, a fact that I think stands as testament to the invariable brilliance of Kendrick’s work. Reliable but never predictable, the album is packed with influential and compelling statements on some of the most critical issues in America and the world: race, greed, sexuality and religion. Its relevance cannot be overstated and it is a confirmation of Kendrick’s mastery over words that should, and will I’m sure, leave all shouting “Pimp pimp! Hooray!”.