Archive collections and cutting room floor compilations can sometimes make for uneven listening. Sure, as standalone songs they may work perfectly fine, but sometimes a clutter of half-finished ideas sitting awkwardly next to fully-formed material that didn’t make the final cut can conspire to create a jarring, bitty, unfocused experience.
Yet for what is essentially a half-hour trawl through the ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ sessions’ leftovers (dropped as a surprise release late this past Thursday), ‘untitled unmastered’ is a stunningly cohesive and lucid work by Kendrick Lamar. Last year’s ‘Butterfly’ LP – widely hailed at 2015’s finest – remains a brilliant but dense work, almost overwhelming at times, which doesn’t always make for an easy listen (which perhaps was partly the point). In contrast, the eight songs gathered here roll out feeling as if they have the luxury of not being tied down to some broader underlying narrative.
From the start, this direct approach catches the listener off guard. The opening cut, ‘untitled 01 08.19.2014’ (there are no song titles here, just the track number with a date presumably indicating when it was written or recorded) sets things off at a frenetic pace, as a pounding uptempo drumbeat and double-bass rhythm are matched with a simple piano loop and eerie synths. Redolent of the grimy, lo-fi masterpieces of ‘Enter The Wu-Tang’-era RZA, it forms a fitting backdrop for Kendrick’s relentless raps, which sketch out a modern-day LA apocalypse: “No birds chirping or flying, no dogs barking/We all nervous and crying, moving in caution/In disbelief our beliefs the reason for all this/The tallest building plummet, cracking and crumbling/The ground is shaking/The smell is disgusting, the heat is unbearable…” (Words which, it should be noted, are also not too dissimilar to the survivalist ghetto operas of the Wu in their all-conquering ‘90s pomp).
Such biblical imagery continues on ‘untitled 02 06.23.2014’, which finds Kendrick “stuck in the belly of the beast”, seeing discarded Styrofoam lean cups strewn everywhere and demanding: “Get God on the phone… My hood going (b)razy/Where did we go wrong?” As an ominous synth dips in and out of the beat, and a swirling Coltrane-esque sax punches through the words towards the end, it’s both sonically and thematically a close relation to ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’.
‘untitled 03 05.28.2013’, meanwhile, deftly weaves a stinging critique of shady record industry politics – a long-running theme in rap ever since its old school pioneers were roundly ripped off (famously crystallised in Q-Tip’s famous “Industry Rule #4080” barb) – into a much wider analysis of the way race and capitalism interact in America, examining property, wealth and more from the perspective of different ethnic groups. Served up on a naggingly bouncy, J Dilla-like platter of bubbly funk, it’s this album’s own ‘King Kunta’ moment.
Later, the TDE linchpin teams up with fellow Black Hippy soldier Jay Rock on ‘untitled 05 09.21.2014’, trading bars over a floaty, downtempo west coast jazz number underpinned by crushing snares that flow like a chopped ‘n’ screwed take on the famous ‘Amen’ break. “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,” rhymes Kendrick, before adding: “Genocism and capitalism just made me hate/Correctionals and these private prisons gave me a date/Professional dream killers reason why I’m awake….”
Adding further depth to the paranoid proceedings, Jay Rock, who dropped his own superb ‘90059’ LP last year, chimes in: “I’m sleep walkin’, I’m street stalkin’/I’m outta place/Reinforcing this heat barking, these are the brakes/Before I blink do I see me before them pearly gates?/Or this is just a mirage or a façade…”. A standout track, it’s a careful study of alienation and mortality enveloped in a pulp crime tale in which all concerned become increasingly unhinged.
All of which ensures that ‘untitled unmastered’ is much more than some optional add-on to ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’. Accepted, the raps inevitably revisit the same themes and ideas explored in that album. But it’s not just that this release adds new layers and context; some of the stellar work stocked here even surpasses the best that ‘Butterfly’ has to offer.
It also reaffirms his status as one of rap’s most important voices in 2016. Consider the patience-testing initial title changes, the ostentatious Madison Square Garden show, the Twitter grandstanding and the tiresome tinkering that heralded the recent arrival of Kanye West’s fairly middling ‘The Life Of Pablo’. Then contrast it with the low-key launch of ‘untitled unmastered’: this is the sound of Kendrick Lamar nonchalantly dropping off a bunch of cutting room leftovers – which prove superior to most other emcees’ full-length studio releases - to little fanfare and sending hip-hop into a resulting tailspin. It’s a confident and powerful statement, and one that underlines his complete and utter dominance of the genre at this moment.
Words: Hugh Leask
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