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.
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.
Madison III: That’s because To Pimp a Butterfly is much better as a statement than it is an album. I still prefer good kid, m.A.A.d city and find Butterfly mostly unlistenable. I like a lot of moments in it, but random jazz samples and mentions of black power don’t make an iconic album for me. Not to mention the complete ignoring of the respectability politics rife within the black-power message of the album. What is interesting is that I enjoy this album a lot more than Butterfly. Untitled seems to be Kendrick having some fun, not caring about the finished project, and just throwing some shit at the wall. I’m sure it’s much more calculated than that, but I can sit back and chill with this album — it reminds me a lot of The Love Below for some reason, particularly “Untitled 05.” It’s epic, blends several musical styles into one track, and feels important not just for importance’s sake but because it tells me something about Kendrick.
Willis-Abdurraqib: I think this is something that Kendrick could do, and maybe a few other artists could do, but I’m not that eager for the door this opens. I shudder at the thought of Iggy Azalea B sides that exist merely because they can. This collection of Kendrick songs works because Kendrick is a singular talent who, even at his most mediocre, is still capable of things that many of his peers aren’t. I’ll grab any record that Prince makes, because I know there will be at least three songs on it that are doing impossible things. Kendrick is entering that space for me, but it’s a small space. It doesn’t have room for that many people.
Turner: Even with the little warning we got of the project, the back of my mind hoped but wasn’t expecting to hear THE Colbert song (“Untitled 03”). I don’t want to think of the number of times I’ve watched that performance just thinking how considered, painful, but ultimately freeing it is. That this version doesn’t feature the “We don’t die/We multiply” ending deflates part of that joy, but my mind can easily fill in the rest of the gaps. Just getting the mp3 for a song I long left for dead made me enjoy sacrificing sleep on a Thursday night. Did any of the other songs bowl anyone else over on their initial listen?
Hopper: “Untitled 05” is a hell of a centerpiece. What I hear here is essentially an album that is all corporeal themes — it’s a record about staying alive and feeling and fucking, which puzzle-pieces well with a record as concerned with the spirit as TPAB was. Untitled Unmastered concerns itself with “sin” — lust, coveting, jealousy — but seems a little less interested in how one rectifies that, more given to “man’s nature.”
Vozick-Levinson: Jessica, I read the first line of your last paragraph at the exact moment that Kendrick’s verse on “Untitled 05” came into my headphones, and yes. “I got 100 on my dash, got 200 in my trunk! / Name in the grab bags, put my Bible in the trunk!” How does Kendrick make rhyming “trunk” with “trunk” sound like the most necessary couplet in the known universe? Incredible verse. To your other point, I agree but also dig the way headier concerns sneak into the album’s physical world. The same song, “Untitled 05,” ends with an existential query from Jay Rock: “Before I blink, do I see me before them pearly gates? / Or this is just a mirage, or a façade — wait.” I love how the song ends on that unresolved question.
Madison III: I think the reason I like Untitled better than Butterfly is because this feels darker and more introspective. Butterfly felt like someone’s thesis; this feels as raw as hearing “man down, where you from?” on that first album, and it actually connects with me. Maybe it’s also coming off the Grammys performance — I much prefer Kendrick in live performances than I tend to in album form, but damn, “My mama told me that I was different the moment I was different” just speaks to me. I liked visiting this brief world Kendrick gave us, and I’m looking forward to his next studio album with more riffs like this than songs that feel overproduced like “How Much a Dollar Cost.” To me, anyway.
Beauchemin: Something that I always wonder about with albums that open with a spoken-word intro is: Is the intro supposed to set the mood or underscore what follows? Because that isn’t always entirely obvious — and it rubs me weirdly when records are both sexual and political, because then you end up with something like what happens on “Untitled 01,” where the song begins with this deep-voiced dude being like “Aw, yeah, girl, you want me to touch you right here?” and then a seemingly unrelated verse kicks in that is super potent and inherently political. I don’t know if I think this transition is muddled or tacky or offensive — or maybe I’m missing the point, and the politics of intimacy are supposed to be part of the whole vision. More often than not, I just think it’s kind of base. As a woman, it’s hard for me to take a song seriously after I’ve been forced to listen to a breathy man slowly utter a line like, “Oh, you want it right now? Like that? I got you, baby — all on ya, baby — push it back on daddy, baby” — it’s like, ew, stop. This is just my personal opinion, but I feel like I’m being forced into a scene I don’t really want to indulge, like that interlude on The Chronic, “The Doctor’s Office.” Don’t get me wrong: The narrative is fine, I guess, I just don’t know what purpose that serves when paired with a song that also has the line, “Atheists for suicide / Planes falling out the sky / Trains jumping off the track / Mothers yelling, ‘He’s alive!’”
Willis-Abdurraqib: I really like a lot of these songs, and I appreciate how they blend into the established arc of Kendrick’s vision and politics. All that said, I hope 2016 is the year where we see the end of spoken-word intros, in all forms. As Molly mentioned, this one was particularly uncomfortable, especially when held up next to the rest of the album’s content. There has been a lot written about Kendrick’s relationship with misogyny, but it feels at its most ever-present in moments like that. Not spectacular or unique, when compared to music spanning literally every genre, but somehow more clumsy or jarring.