At this point in time, Kendrick Lamar can release anything and continue his ride on the seemingly endless crest of his career.
Five years ago, the unknown Compton MC released his debut mixtape, “Section.80.” By pure chance, enough people championed the potential that saturated the record for Lamar to realize his dream was far from obsolete.
Fast-forward a year later to the 2012 critically acclaimed album, “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City,” which found an introspective Lamar reciting the narrative of his fertile beginnings as a young MC attempting to escape from the detrimental chokehold of Compton. “Good Kid” put Lamar on the map, and in little time he embarked on the recording of his 2015 magnum opus, “To Pimp a Butterfly.”
A great achievement in Lamar’s career, black art, and music as a collective, everything about “To Pimp a Butterfly” was grandiose. Musically, Lamar encapsulated ’70s funk and ’60s avant-garde jazz and fused the two into a dense blend of retro-futurism.
Lyrically, the album’s activist stance on sociopolitical issues played as a musical State of the Union address, with Lamar exposing the evils of institutional racism, materialism and inequality.
Uncompromising as uncompromising can get, the album provided suburbia with a raw look into the life of a young black man in modern America.
This brings us to Lamar’s recent endeavors. Before and after the widespread success of “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar began performing one-off unreleased numbers on television shows with a condensed jazz band.
After persistent badgering by fans and an enticing tweet from LeBron James, Lamar’s label, Top Dawg Entertainment, collected eight outtakes from “Butterfly” and released them as a surprise new album/EP/project called, “untitled unmastered” (Aftermath/Interscope).
“Untitled unmastered” proves that Lamar’s singular force of expression has enabled him to abolish all entanglements with expectations placed on his music by outside influences. It is Lamar’s most experimental effort yet – both artistically and musically.
From the minimalist green cover to track names being untitled except from a date tag, all elements provide a piece to the puzzle. Even the mundane title, “untitled unmastered,” hints at what listeners should expect – Lamar interacting with music in uncharted territory where creativity and vulnerability are plentiful.
It is impossible not to draw comparisons to Kanye West’s recent effort, “The Life of Pablo.” Both were created by prominent rappers, and both were released with no previous announcement or press.
They also find West and Lamar seeking out personal redemption through spirituality. However, while West comes off as loud, brash and incoherent, Lamar pursues his goal with knowledge and self-reliance. It also helps that “untitled” adopts the cohesion that is absent on “Pablo.”
You may ask, “How can an album of outtakes contain any trace of cohesion?” Well, lucky for listeners, the record benefits from the same intellectual layering of motifs and dizzying musical conglomerate that thrived on “To Pimp a Butterfly.”
However, this time around, Lamar consciously embraces all inconsistencies and emerges with moments of brilliance.
Lamar opens the album with a dialogue between himself and a higher power on “untitled 01.” Rapping over swelling piano riffs and driving percussion, Lamar calls out for redemption during an apocalyptic judgment day, citing his efforts of prioritizing spirituality over violence in his music.
“I made ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ ’fore you told me / To use my vocals to save mankind for you.”
On “untitled 02,” Lamar revamps the raucous saxophone shrieks that besieged “Butterfly” and gives insight into his battle with accepting his immediate riches and success, while also undermining the stereotypes placed on rap moguls like him.
In little time, the self-reliance fades and Lamar’s worldview comes into focus on “untitled 03,” where he engages in a conversation about priorities between different races. The Asian advocates spirituality; the Indian embraces ties to his land; the black man emphasizes camaraderie; the white man posed as a record executive is fixated on sales and his company’s earnings.
“Telling me that he selling me just for $10.99 / If I go platinum from rapping, I do the company fine.”
This retaliation against the white man taking credit for black achievement along with the song’s ending mantra, “I shall enjoy the fruits of my labor if I get freed today,” is classic Lamar.
It is on “untitled 05” where Lamar’s socially conscious morals freeze the listener into a numbing state of fraught silence. Fronting a dismal R&B flavored piano trio, Lamar tosses dirt on tactics used to oppress the at-risk in marginalized communities. By eroding the roots of mass incarceration and institutional racism, Lamar is free to boldly advocate for an eventual overhaul of violence and gang life, suggesting that the young should enact introspection as a substitute for violence.
“Correctionals and these private prisons gave me a date / Professional dream killers reason why I’m awake.”
Lamar’s unparalleled lyrical prowess, paired with the haunting Eric Dolphy sample that closes out the scathing rhetoric, fossilizes “untitled 05” as an essential track.
The album peaks during the three-part epic “untitled 07,” where Lamar journeys through some of his most philosophical themes before drowning in a sea of lo-fi: his obligations as an influential public voice, self-appreciation, and love over lust. Lamar pens an internal diary, rightfully viewing himself at a much higher level of maturity than ever before, and sends out a message for fellow rappers to follow his lead.
“Hope it’s evident that I inspired a thousand emcees to do better / I blew cheddar on youth centers, buildings and Beamers and blue leather.”
And at the snap of a finger, it’s over: the culmination of a short, but potent effort that leaves you yearning for more.
There are many takeaways from this project. We learn that Lamar can achieve moments of genius in the most organic of settings. It is also plain to see that he is set on solidifying his modern interpretation of jazz in his music.
In the big picture however, “untitled unmastered” manifests Lamar’s continual allegiance to his music, life and community. If it wasn’t evident that Lamar created music for a purpose last year, it is crystal clear at the moment.
Kendrick Lamar continues to shatter musical norms and lucky for us, he is intent on bringing everyone along for the ride.
Matthew Aquiline is a senior at Lancaster High School.