By Jon Herlin
Given that Untitled Unmastered. is comprised of unused demos from the To Pimp a Butterfly sessions, it’s unsurprising that its production is stylistically similar to its predecessor. And given that the production on TPAB was fantastic, I doubt anybody is going to complain. As with TPAB, the production on Untitled is refreshingly instrumental: the album draws from various genres, but primarily favours restless jazz beats instead of the formulaic trap beats that dominate the rap game today. At this point, Kendrick’s producers have essentially cultivated a stylistic niche for him, and the beats on this album fit comfortably into that niche. They’re complex and provocative without being overwhelming; they’re full of substance but they aren’t self-indulgent. In short, they provide the perfect counterpoint to Kendrick’s rapping.
And when it comes to rapping, Kendrick’s versatility is unmatched in mainstream rap today. He’s like Eminem: he can’t be pinned down to one style, he’s proficient in all of them. Indeed, Kendrick’s flow on this album is as restless as the jazz beats that he raps over: it hardly remains consistent line by line, let alone throughout each song or the entire album. For example, on ‘Untitled 01’ he initially comes in hard and fast with lines that emphasize end rhyme, but toward the end of the song, he switches it up to a more jagged and spondaic flow that emphasizes triplets and internal rhyme: “ Crucifix, tell me you can fix / anytime I need / Imma start jotting everything in my diary / Never would you lie to me.” As a result, you’re always on your toes. It’s really hard to get bored with his rapping. With other rappers, it’s the same thing over and over again: not so with Kendrick.
It functions simultaneously as a blowjob joke and as a call to arms about individuality, about using your head to question authority and so forth.
Kendrick’s vocals on this album are as unique and various as his flows. We don’t get the robotic, autotune-laden wail that rappers such as Future – or lately, Kanye West – essentially incorporate on every track. Instead, we get an authentic voice—a voice that expresses the full range of emotions and that essentially functions as an instrument in itself. I don’t mean that in the traditional sense: Kendrick isn’t really varying his pitch that much; he isn’t really singing, and when he does sing, it isn’t really that impressive. I mean rather, that his voice is an instrument in the sense that he’s changing his timbre in order to evoke a different mood in each song, that’s he’s trying to evoke different selves, different versions of Kendrick. The best example of this is the track ‘Untitled 02’. There’s this wailing trumpet on the beat that kind of reminds me of Miles Davis’s trumpet on Bitches Brew: it plays chromatic scales and its borderline atonal, but it creates a kind of beautiful dissonance. And during the hook, (“get God on the phone”), Kendrick’s voice mirrors the trumpet: it cracks and wavers all over the place. But throughout the verses, it has a sort of murderous certainty to it it. These vocal juxtapositions are what make the song the best and most interesting on the album.
Another great thing about Kendrick’s delivery is that he enunciates his lyrics, which is refreshing, given that today, most rapper’s lyrics are unintelligible. In particular, Atlanta rappers such as Future, Young Thug, and Rich Homie Quan all swallow their syllables and drown out their lyrics with enough autotune to kill a horse, such that what they’re saying becomes secondary or unimportant to how they’re saying it. With Kendrick, however, it’s about both: he’s got a message and he’s saying it with style.
Lyrically, Untitled is actually very good, and if it were any other rapper, I’d probably say that its lyrics are excellent. Of course, Kendrick needs to be held to a different standard – the standard of his own work – and when the lyrics of Untitled are compared to Kendrick’s full length LP’s, they’re revealed to be good, but not great. For example, there’s a recurring lyric throughout the album, “head is the answer / head is the future,” which is incorporated most significantly on the extended outro on ‘Untitled 07’. It functions simultaneously as a blowjob joke and as a call to arms about individuality, about using your head to question authority and so forth. And though it’s kind of funny, it’s not really going to fly for Kendrick. Another example is the sexual encounter that is narrated as the intro to ‘Untitled 01’. This is possibly the worst part of the album, and it doesn’t fit with the content of the song at all.
That said, Untitled Unmastered. is still an interesting and thought provoking project. Even though the title wants to draw attention to how unpolished this EP is, Kendrick still takes a solid shot at cohesion. It’s not a concept album by any means, but there are certainly recurring themes throughout, most of which are the same as those explored on TPAB. Moreover, Kendrick delivers an insightful self-reflexivity or self-awareness on this album that expands on and perhaps surpasses that of TPAB. The chant “Pimp pimp, hooray!” – a play on “hip hip, hooray!” and a celebration of the acclaim that To Pimp a Butterfly received – recurs throughout the album, and it demonstrates that Kendrick is very much conscious of his importance, both for rap and for America as a whole. On one level, Kendrick knows that he’s one of the only rappers with a message other than money, hoes, lean, and cars. And on another level, he knows that what he says has the potential to create real social change, for better or for worse.
Some of the best on the album express perspectives on this, for example, on ‘Untitled 1’ he raps, “I made To Pimp a Butterfly ‘fore you / Told me to use my vocals to save mankind for you.” What he’s saying there is like, “I didn’t want to take on this position of the redeemer, but you thrust upon me. I never wanted to be larger than life, but you’ve given me this responsibility.” And I think this lyric is a really profound insight into Kendrick’s position as an artist right now. He’s got the talent, but we’ve kind of elevated him to this messianic status, when in reality, he’s also a normal guy who jams out with his friends, as exemplified by that extended guitar outro on ‘Untitled 07’. In this regard, then, the album title is somewhat sly. It wants to lower our standards; it wants to warn us not to take this project too seriously. And yet by extension, it also wants to redress how we think of Kendrick’s music: it’s about the art just as much as it’s about the statement.
Moreover, Kendrick delivers an insightful self-reflexivity or self-awareness on this album that expands on and perhaps surpasses that of TPAB.
Therefore I’m going conclude in line with terms that Kendrick lays out for us, that is, I’m going to emphasize the art more than the statement. Untitled Unmastered. is comprised of a lot of pretty good songs: besides those mentioned already, ‘Untitled 05,’ ‘Untitled 06,’ and ‘Untitled 08’ are all praiseworthy. But with the exception of ‘Untitled 02’, nothing on this album matches the highs of Maad City or TPAB, such as “Money Trees,” ‘Swimming Pools,’ ‘King Kunta,’ or ‘i’. Ultimately, this project is very much a collection of leftovers, of songs that are worth listening to, but that belong on an untitled EP.