Untitled Unmastered: A Kendrick Lamar Reaction Roundtable

K.Dot breaks free of all expectations. Now what?

By Molly Beauchemin, Jessica Hopper, Ira Madison III, Alex Pappademas, David Turner, Simon Vozick-Levinson, and Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib

Vozick-Levinson: Last night, as the curtain fell on the latest GOP debate debacle and a nation attempted in vain to cleanse all thoughts of Donald Trump’s fascist wang, Kendrick Lamar swooped in to save us with a surprise album. Or… did he? What is Untitled Unmastered, anyway (aside from a seriously great listen)? The project is untitled; so are all the tracks. Should we be thinking of this as an album at all?

Turner: I’d vote nah. Once I saw the tracklist, one of my first questions was, Can we even trust the dates on these songs? “Untitled 03 | 05.28.2013” is the song that Kendrick premiered on The Colbert Report in December 2014. Does that mean it sat around for over a year before its first performance? It’s entirely possible — but when he specifically references To Pimp a Butterfly (released in March 2015) on a track called “Untitled 01 | 08.19.2014,” I wonder. Either way, after the unusual releases of Rihanna’s Anti and Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, I’m fine with eschewing the album debate if it’s going to become such a hang-up with people. These new songs are now out there in the world, allowed to take on their own life. The distribution method or packaging feels like a minor concern.

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Willis-Abdurraqib: It did feel a bit, in aesthetic and presentation, like something the guy who comes into your barbershop would try to sell you while you’re getting a cut. Still, I am very fine reimagining the way we think about the “album” in its traditional form. In the era of the Internet, in the era of popular music existing at a mile a minute, I’m not sure if it makes sense anymore to place so much weight on what is or isn’t something that feels like an “album.” I get the feeling that a lot of artists are just trying to not be forgotten after a month. I also don’t entirely trust the dates on the songs, but it feeds into this concept that people are excited about. This idea that these are the songs that “didn’t make it” on a “proper” project like TPAB, and yet are still so good. It adds to the mythology in a way that I kind of appreciate. It keeps the risk low, regarding how the music is received. If I score 30 points in a basketball game, and I show up to the court the next day and miss nearly every shot, it doesn’t matter. People already know that I’m good. I can shrug it off and say, “Oh, I wasn’t playing for real today.” Kendrick, in this case, scored 30, and then went out and scored maybe 20. But the packaging and presentation of the album, down to the songs being untitled, strikes me as really deliberate: code for “if you don’t like this, it’s fine. I wasn’t trying anyway.”

Pappademas: It’s, what, 34 minutes long? Leave Home by the Ramones is 33 minutes. Revolver is, like, 32. And stop me before I bring jazz into this. It’s an album, but it’s a 2016 rap album, so it aspires to the first-thought/best-thought conditions of the mixtape — iterative, loosely sequenced, a document of an ongoing process, a slice of life rather than a whole wedding cake, the sound of an artist holding up yesterday’s paper as proof of creative life, the blog post rather than the think piece. The Life of Pablo has that feeling — Imma fix Wolves – and so does the days-between-vacations Anti. Reaching back a little, Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside has it, too — it feels like a concept album where the concept is “Wednesday night.” And I’m more than fine with that. I love Kanye and Rihanna and Earl, and I can’t imagine listening to any of those records and feeling let down that they aren’t double CDs with skits or whatever. While I still plan to take a couple weeks to get my head around this one, my first thought is that I like Kendrick even more when he’s not trying to make his All Eyez on Me and his Aquemini simultaneously. Like all creative people, rappers tend to burden what they do with expectation, and it can undo them. We should just make things and let go of them and pretend it’s a leak and worry about it later. Inspired by Kendrick’s example, I wrote this on my phone with the shower running. Untitled, unmastered, unshaven. I would like to see somebody who’s into ASMR talk about some of the things Kendrick does with his voice here. I would like somebody to bring jazz into this.

Vozick-Levinson: I agree that Kendrick has cleverly sidestepped the expectations game he helped create with TPAB — no big deal, just a bunch of casually brilliant tracks without names, who even knows when I made them, right? But I get the sense that he’s also raising the bar for engagement with his music. Unlike To Pimp a Butterfly, an album filled with bold thesis statements from the cover art down, this thing forces you to figure out what it means on your own. It’s music made for marinating.

Turner: That’s the funny thing about To Pimp a Butterfly: The album was critically loved, but the way it moved through black culture wasn’t immediate. “Alright” took months to gain its political might, and, for me, much of the record’s joy and tension showed itself in the fall, after we’d had nearly a year to sit with it. In a time when reactions and takes are made so quickly, it’s nice that Kendrick is trying to evade such pressures. Of course, that’s also a blessing of success: People like me only need to see a single tweet to eagerly spend $9.99 (plus tax) on a record of B sides.

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