Mar 10, 2016

Review: untitled unmastered. - @kendricklamar; A Niles P. Joint.

I feel like after you drop one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the last few years, you get a grace period and don’t have to release anything for at least three years if you choose.  Kendrick Lamar begs to differ.  After LeBron James took to Twitter to ask the TDE brass (Top Dawg specifically) about releasing some of Kendrick’s hidden catalogue, untitled unmastered. dropped as a surprise release late last Thursday.  When I say “hidden catalogue” I’m referring to songs that were performed at the Grammys and on the late nite talk show circuit that had no official releases.  While every rapper has loads of gems locked in a vault somewhere that are usually only speculated about, Kendrick & TDE turned the drafts from the seminal To Pimp a Butterfly into a cohesive project.  

The first thing you’ll notice about this album is that none of the songs have any actual titles, instead using numbers and dates of when they were made.  So on untitled 01 the first voice you actually hear is Bilal’s, being lusty on the intro as the instrumentation builds.  Over a simple yet prominent bassline courtesy of Terrace Martin, Kendrick visualizes judgement day and pleads his case to God as to why he should see the pearly gates.  The chant “Pimp pimp, hooray!” is first used on untitled 02, in which K Dot struggles with his Compton upbringing clashing with his newfound success over a wailing saxophone riff and a rattling piano.  The lengthy second verse is very much a celebration of his team’s prosperity.

untitled 03 was originally on The Colbert Report and has Kendrick getting advice from an Asian, Indian, and Black man.  In the end a white record exec rolls through and declares his intention to capitalize on Lamar’s rap talents anyway.  Bilal shows up again and provides the hook.  It isn’t as good as the live version but is still compelling.  The shortest track on the album is untitled 04 but is still well-layered and features sultry vocals from SZA and somewhat surprisingly, Jay Rock in a rare singing appearance.  Despite being under two minutes, it packs a punch and is still satisfying.

For what it’s worth, untitled 05 is my favorite track on the album.  Every time you listen to it, you’ll find another intricacy in the music that stands out but still melts into the song as a whole.  Anna Wise’s buttery vocals on the hook really make the song for me, but a rumbling bassline and theatrical horns can’t be overlooked, especially the wily saxophone by Terrace Martin.  Pianists will also be able to appreciate this one as Robert Glasper tickles the ivory.  Lyrically Kendrick is at his most ravenous and rambunctious on the first verse.  Punch and Jay Rock round out the song nicely with their guest spots.  Adrian Younge & Ali Shaheed Muhammad form a dynamic producer duo for untitled 06.  It’s got an easily accessible topic (self confidence) and gives off a smooth jazz vibe that sounds like an Esperanza Spalding joint, which is dope.  Cee-Lo drops by and infuses the song with his signature falsetto.  

You get a three for one deal with untitled 07.  In the first part, Kendrick declares that the material possessions of the world are meaningless and urges the listener to “Levitate.”  While I generally hate modern percussion trends in hip hop, I have to admit that Kendrick makes it work here.  On the second part, he throws down the gauntlet and sends thinly veiled shots at rival rappers over uncomplicated production.  The third and final part is a recording of him arranging the vocals in untitled 04 in the studio with producer Taz Arnold.  It’s a great example of K Dot’s talent in the song making process.  The album ends on an upbeat note with untitled 08. Even though the song talks about the Black community’s fiscal struggles.  The subject matter is serious, but the beat is certified funk and would fit in at any cookout this summer.

Usually when an artist or group releases a collection of rarities or songs that didn’t make the album, it’s more of a niche type of thing meant only for the diehard fans.  But Kendrick Lamar and TDE’s “scraps” are better than a lot of albums you’ll here.  This speaks volumes of how talented Kendrick and his camp are.  It’s an all star effort, with big name producers stopping through to play a single instrument on songs.  All of these songs came from the TPAB and while they don’t have the same cultural impact as last year’s instant classic, they still form a cohesive and concise album of their own.  It’s good enough to earn the same end of year accolades and Grammys as its predecessor.  This is nothing short of remarkable.  While it’s too early to claim this as Album of the Year, it makes a strong case in its artistry and craftsmanship.  Kendrick Lamar came in on his day off and dropped a gem.  untitled unmastered. earns him an even longer grace period. I doubt he takes it though.

Rating: 4.9 out of 5.


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