Did Kendrick Lamar have anything left to prove? Fresh off a year that included the release of his widely acclaimed third album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” a few virtuosic live performances that set the Twittersphere ablaze and his sweep at the Grammy’s, the answer seemed to be a resounding “no.” With two (arguably three) masterpiece albums under his belt, King Kendrick, long hailed as the messiah and redeemer of rap since the release of his 2012 studio debut, “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” claimed his rightful place at the top of the game. All he could do was clutch his scepter, breathe in the heady fumes of success and bask in the glory of his well-deserved recognition.
Or so we thought. But heavy lies the crown, and unlike his more hubristic contemporaries, Lamar has never had much use for the hollow trappings of fame. His collaborators have publicly described him as the rare artist who prefers toiling away in the studio to flaunting his talents on the stage. And in his surprise “untitled unmastered,” a new quasi-album that dropped last Friday, March 4, he lets us peek behind the curtain at the messy process of putting together an album — what stays, what gets cut and what gets reworked or revised.
The newest release, which almost seems like it was tossed off as an afterthought, is comprised of nine tracks that didn’t make it onto “To Pimp a Butterfly” — an album that was somehow airtight without being suffocating, cohesive and fully realized without being rigid or didactic. It’s easy to hear some of the same sonic features on display in this one. Not surprisingly, the same collaborators are here too. Bursts of Terrace Martin’s manic sax punctuate Lamar’s inimitable flow, the same way they did on “For Free?” Vocals from Anna Wise show up on a mysterious, compelling hook, like they did on “These Walls.” And a couple of songs burst with the same infectious funk that had you helplessly snapping along to “King Kunta.”
But there’s something else on “untitled unmastered” that isn’t as apparent on “To Pimp a Butterfly” — an irresistible undercurrent of menace. Put simply, some of these songs are creepy as hell. You can almost imagine Kendrick in the studio wearing the signature black contacts he often performs with, working himself into a Zen-like trance as he repeats “levitate” over and over on “untitled 7.” That’s nothing compared to the anxiety-inducing “untitled 2,” where his dexterous voice schizophrenically skitters across the track, effortlessly shifting between intonations like he’s succumbing to the voices in his head. Even on “untitled 3,” which he debuted on “The Colbert Report” (2006 – 2014) a few years ago, the shimmering of the wind instruments is filled with foreboding, signaling the approach of something unwelcome. The inclusion of even one of these tracks on the otherwise upbeat soundscape of “To Pimp a Butterfly” would have given the album a very different feel. At the same time, you can’t listen to them and not come away with a different perspective on their progenitor. Maybe you missed something ominous lurking under the surface during those first few listens through “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Maybe the imperceptibility of that subterranean layer is the essence of its genius.
Listeners might come to “untitled unmastered” expecting something rawer, more experimental, than Kendrick’s previous efforts. And certainly, some of the tracks play like rough drafts — “untitled 4” feels a little undercooked, while “untitled 7” could have been chopped up into three different tracks. The rest, however, gleams like a fresh coat of varnish has just been applied — especially the glistening “untitled 08,” which would be right at home on a disco club DJ’s playlist. So it’s slightly disingenuous to claim — as the title seems to imply — that this loose collection of tracks is “unmastered,” as if it were hastily thrown together with little thought given to lyrics or production value. That comes off as a major humblebrag — the artistic equivalent of gesturing to your brand new Porsche and saying, “What, this old heap?” In the end, though, this album isn’t about showing off a new ride. It’s about popping the hood to reveal the chaotic, unruly process by which greatness comes together.