By Kent Wong, March 15 2016 —
Kendrick Lamar has established himself as a pivotal figure in hip-hop, releasing the highly-acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly last year. Lamar considers himself more of a writer than a rapper, which is justified, as Lamar’s work reads like poetry discussing themes of social inequality, race and identity.
The rapper now returns with the unexpected untitled, unmastered., a project that sets politically charged lyrics against free jazz, soul and avant-garde. The collection of untitled demos makes no promises but breaks all expectations, fleshing out tracks Lamar premiered in recent months on late-night television and at the Grammys.
The album carries more raw production than the rapper’s previous works. Still, many tracks would fit perfectly on To Pimp a Butterfly with a little more polish. Despite the collection’s stripped-down sound, the tracks form a cohesive whole, and it’s obvious some songs were touched up in the studio.
Of all the songs, “untitled 05 | 09.21.2014” hits hardest, with Lamar offering commentary on how the American justice system disproportionately punishes people of colour. Beautiful jazz and backup vocals from Anna Wise give the song warmth, but a chilling reality lies beyond the musical backdrop. Lamar is an expert at this trick, combining gorgeous instrumentals with heavy-hitting lyricism.
Lamar waxes poetic again on album closer “untitled 08 | 09.06.2014,” which finds the rapper reflecting on the challenge of finding success as a black American.
The eight tracks clock in at 34 minutes, and each are a powerful demonstration of Lamar’s creative flow. The studio versions of songs previously premiered live aren’t quite as dramatic, but still stand on their own. I also found it helpful to read along with the lyrics as I listened through untitled, unmastered. to get a better grasp on each song’s meaning.
After the release of To Pimp a Butterfly, many lauded Lamar as the new leader of West Coast rap, and untitled, unmastered. only cements that claim. Few rap albums — especially ones composed entirely of demos — exemplify the creative and emotional potential of the genre like this.