At the risk of sounding like a total asshole, know-it-all college student, Kendrick Lamar’s surprise release “untitled unmastered.” can be understood best in the context of Cleanth Brooks’ seminal essay, “The Heresy of the Paraphrase”: “It [a poem] is a pattern of resolved stresses… the structure of a poem resembles that of a ballet or musical composition. It is a pattern of resolutions and balances and harmonizations, developed through a temporal scheme”. While not entirely evident in this quotation, Brooks’ essential argument is that a piece of art – a poem specifically – cannot be synopsized as this synopsis would omit the essential elements of the work, which often contrast and are antagonistic to one another.
Lamar’s new compilation of unreleased, untitled and unrestricted songs cannot be summarized for so many reasons, yet one of these reasons is not the collection’s lack of cogency. While it would be incredibly easy to write off “untitled unmastered.” as, solely, K-Dot’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” B-sides, as I did upon first hearing about the album’s release, “untitled unmastered.” comes together as an apocalyptic, anxious and theistic plea for answers. It’s frightening that Lamar is putting these tracks out for public consumption as songs that didn’t even make it on what was widely regarded as the best album in all of popular music last year.
“untitled unmastered.” provides the listener with one of the more unique listening experiences of 2016. The smoky, 1950s, jazz club meets DJ Khalil aesthetic brings the listener into a part of Lamar’s conscious that is both unmastered and insatiable. I’ll take this time now to apologize for my excessive framing of the album, but it’s necessary as “untitled unmastered.” has practically no context for us.
To start, the project’s opening track is filled with archetypical apocalyptic imagery, which is accompanied by a cascading beat that makes the track sonically spin downwards into the abyss that is “untitled unmastered.”:
“The tallest building plummet, cracking, and crumbling
The ground is shaking, swallowing young woman
With a baby, daisies, and other flowers burning in destruction
The smell is disgusting, the heat is unbearable”
Yet what is most striking about Kendrick’s descriptions is that many of them are filled with conflicting, non-continuous ideas. Through these obfuscating lines he is able to aptly capture the contradictory way in which humans live their lives in accordance to their God, or more generally, their values, as well as provide a heinous atmosphere for the song to exist in:
“In disbeliefs our beliefs the reason for all this …
Backpedaling Christians settling for forgiveness …
Some of us never did wrong but still went to hell …
All man, child, woman, life completely went in reverse
I guess I’m running in place trying to make it to church”
The cut sets the album up to be one built on pure dissonance: an album that provides more questions than answers. The only thing that King Kenny is sure of on this album is that “It’s happening.”
“(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”
The repetition of “It’s happening” feeds into the foreboding sense of doom that weaves its way through practically all of Kendrick’s lyrics on the album. In his mind, the human race has reached a point of no salvation, thus explaining his existential anxiety throughout the project. Kendrick’s singsong-y coda at the end of “untitled 01” elucidates the purpose of his own use of contradictions within the song and the ephemeral nature of virtue in humans:
“Young nigga act an ass
Young nigga act a fool
Young nigga get yo’ cash
Young nigga do what it do
Young nigga go, young nigga go
Young nigga go, young nigga go
Whatever makes all of you happy in this bitch
Just take it all back before the light switch”
On “untitled unmastered.” Kendrick is ultimately concerned with his relationship with his God — and how his and the human race’s earthly problems hinder him from achieving a peace with Him. The Compton MC has never sounded more disillusioned than on “untitled.” Kendrick, as mentioned before, tosses massive questions into his theistic ether, like on the Drake-esque “Untitled 02”, which also includes another apocalyptic image, again adding to this sense of ominousness:
“World is going brazy
Where did we go wrong?
It’s a tidal wave, it’s a thunderdome”
I could probably write a separate article dissecting every time Kendrick directly pleaded to God, asked Him a question, or simply spoke to Him, but that would distract from the rest of this robust work. Yet, his implicit and explicit dialogues with God create for substantial existential discussions that permeate the entirety of the surprise album. Perhaps serving as the inspiration for the closing track of “To Pimp a Butterfly”, Cee-Lo Green’s verse on “Untitled 06” asks: “Am I mortal man or make believe?”
Kendrick is grappling with one of the most fundamental ontological questions possible, one that has stumped even the best philosophers. Throughout “untitled unmastered.”, he tackles these questions that are almost too big for hip-hop, yet remains undaunted and confronts them head on in the most truthful and profound way that any emcee of this decade has. Building off of the question of “Who am I?”, Kendrick, through the voice of what sounds like a young boy (perhaps Egypt Daoud, son of super-producer Swizz Beatz, who are both co-producers of “untitled 07”) confirms and complicates his Compton origins:
“Compton, is where I’m from
Is where I’m from
Where is I’m from?”
A question like “Where is I’m from?” roots the listener back in Book 1 of Genesis, further illustrating Kendrick’s thirst for knowledge of self, at this point in his life/career, is insatiable. Kendrick’s wild approach to the construction and release of this album is reflected in the tracks’ actual contents.
K-Dot is at his best on “untitled unmastered.” when he embraces his inner savage. “Untitled 05” is Kendrick at his most raw and most manic, a song reminiscent to “u” off of “To Pimp a Butterfly”. While unsettling, the track charges forward with relentless honesty and pain, in turn giving the listener one of the best Kendrick Lamar verses in recent memory:
“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
His unparalleled story telling, incredible wordplay (“Now I’m thinkin’ to myself, hollow tips is all I got”) and rhythmic, yet frustrated and angry, flow all contribute to what is the album’s best cut. Following King Kendrick’s verse, TDE’s CEO, Punch, delivers a sixteen, which is then punctuated by the trading of bars by Jay Rock and, again, Kendrick.
We’ve come to expect nothing less than near-perfection from K-Dot and he comes pretty damn close on his most recent effort. With respect to art, a maxim I stand by is that the more vulnerable, the better. Kendrick has not covered up his most recent release with any hype, sexy covers or advertised features. Compton’s son came through with great beats and honest lyrics, which at the end of the day, is all you and I can really ask for. If these are indeed B-sides, then I cannot wait for Kendrick to bring his A-game in 2016.