[Top Dawg Entertainment / Aftermath]
Kendrick Lamar’s latest release came about from what seems to be a particularly bizarre set of circumstances. LeBron James – speaking for fans everywhere – took to Twitter in late February to bemoan the fact that some of the fabulous songs that Lamar had performed at the Grammys and on The Colbert Report had remained unreleased by Top Dawg Entertainment, Kendrick’s record label. “Dam my nigga u on my head 2…The fans been killing me. Y’all just backed me in a corner..Give me a few days 2 think” replied founder Anthony Tiffith. Less than two weeks later untitled unmastered. appeared on most of the major online music platforms. Though very much a collection of leftovers from the To Pimp A Butterfly recordings, it is such a testament to the immense talent of its creator that it stands as an excellent release in its own right.
There is no individual track quite at the level of something like ‘King Kunta’, ‘Alright’ or ‘Mortal Man’ but if Lamar had included almost anything here on the record itself it is doubtful that anyone would have really complained. ‘untitled 02’ is the pick of the group and thematically it would have fit in perfectly on TPAB, as it once again muses on his confliction about his pre-fame life in Compton and his hunger for success. “Get God on the phone!” he exclaims repeatedly, looking for advice on how to handle himself and advise the talented people around him who are falling victim to the lifestyle that celebrity brings. Perhaps due to the fact that the album is “unmastered”, everything has a stripped down and raw sound that is reminiscent of Earl Sweatshirt’s post-exile work but with a distinctly West Coast flavour to it. In part due to the nature of the release, this works well and places the focus more squarely on Lamar’s lyrical content and delivery.
Kendrick apparently wrote ‘untitled 03’ the day before appearing on The Colbert Report in December 2014 because he didn’t want to perform ‘i’, preferring to do something new instead. Which is just sort of taking the piss, really. It’s hard to fathom that a track with such vibrancy and depth could be created on what sounds like a whim, but here it is, another illustration of the man’s incredible talent and Tupac Shakur levels of productiveness. Here we find K-Dot thinking about the way in which minorities must give a “piece” of themselves in order to be successful in life and wondering if others (label executives, sponsors etc.) only see dollars and cents when they see him.
One of the things that is most striking throughout untitled unmastered. is what seems to be…not quite a crisis of faith, but certainly a deeper contemplation of life’s big questions and the ramifications of their perceived answers. ‘untitled 05’ features a frenzied, jarring verse that borders on nihilistic:
“I got 100 on my dash, got 200 in my trunk
Name in the grab bags, put my Bible in the trunk
Taaka vodka on the top of my binocular I’m drunk
How can I can make them popular, pop ’em when I want?
See I’m livin’ with anxiety, duckin’ the sobriety
Fuckin’ up the system I ain’t fuckin’ with society
Justice ain’t free, therefore justice ain’t me
So I justify his name on obituary
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
Now I’m thinkin’ to myself, hollow tips is all I got
Now I’m drinkin’ by myself, at the intersection, parked
Watch you when you walk inside your house
You threw your briefcase all on the couch
I plan on creeping through your fuckin’ door and blowin’ out
every piece of your brain until your son jump in your arms
Cut on the engine, then sped off in the rain
These words are delivered with gusto and frustration, making them some of the most powerful to be found on the record. It feels like more of a throwback to his good kid, m.A.A.d city days, dragging the listener kicking and screaming through inner city streets and into the mind of some of its cold-blooded occupants. The undercurrents of man’s questioning of his own mortality and desire for some kind of contact with a higher power continue. Here, we see the consequences of what might happen when one no longer believes that there is anything else out there.
Elsewhere, Cee-Lo puts in one of his best performances in a long time on the funky and relatively upbeat ‘untitled 06’ while closing track ‘untitled 08’ features a more traditional West Coast sunshine beat. There really isn’t a dud to be found. Criticisms border on nitpicking. At eight tracks, untitled unmastered. is, of course, quite short but whether or not that is a bad thing when what is here is of such quality is debatable. Similarly, it suggests that musical releases must be a certain length or format which is also problematic. It’s another brilliant addition to the rapidly growing catalogue of one of the most absurdly talented musicians of his generation. If what is on show here is suggestive of what Kendrick Lamar is like on his “B” game, then upon his next full-fledged release we might just have to drop the “of his generation” part of the previous sentence.