Two weeks ago, LeBron James hit the head of Kendrick Lamar's label with an urgent public request. "After that @kendricklamar Grammy performance, you have to release those untitled tracks asap!!!" the NBA all-star tweeted at Top Dawg Entertainment CEO Anthony Tiffith. "Y'all just backed me in a corner," Tiffith replied. "Give me a few days 2 think."
TDE granted James' wish (not to mention that of countless rap fans) nine days later with Untitled Unmastered, a previously unannounced collection of eight demos and outtakes from Lamar's 2015 opus To Pimp a Butterfly. In fact, label co-president Terrence "Punch" Henderson says, plans for the project date back more than a year – but they might not have come to fruition quite so soon without James' tweet. "The idea was already there," Punch says. "He put the extra fire on it, though. He put the extra push. He wanted it bad! You gotta pay attention when LeBron speaks."
Each of the tracks on Untitled Unmastered had a shot at inclusion on To Pimp a Butterfly during that album's two-year-plus writing and recording process, Punch says. "All of them are great songs, they just didn't fit as well as other songs did," he says, citing long discussions between Lamar and the senior TDE team. "We spent hours and hours sitting and debating which song was going to go where [on To Pimp a Butterfly]. Those weren't easy decisions at all. We went back and forth, switched the sequencing up, and traded songs out."
He mentions "Untitled 03" and "Untitled 08" (a.k.a. "Blue Faces") – the tracks that Lamar performed live on The Colbert Report in December 2014 and on The Tonight Show this January, respectively – as having sparked "heavy debates" in Butterfly's sequencing phase. "The ones that we picked for To Pimp a Butterfly just flowed better," he says. "I think we finally came out with the right mix, and now this album shows you behind the scenes."
To that end, the label chose to skip the studio mixing and mastering processes that typically precede a recording's commercial release. "We wanted to keep it as organic as possible," Punch says. "We didn't want to make it all shiny and package it up nice. Those imperfections make the moment."
One person who wasn't entirely sure about that choice? Kendrick Lamar. "It's tough for him, because he's such a perfectionist," Punch says. "To put things out that are unfinished, not mastered or anything – that's a bit of a stretch. He [usually] sits there for all his mastering sessions; he's constantly changing and editing and adding things. So to put this out raw was a little nerve-wracking for him."
Then again, Lamar is on a new level of artistic freedom these days. "He's at the point where he's free to do anything that he wants to do," Punch adds. "Certain artists build up an expectation and have to follow the same formula – that's why you end up hearing the same album from artists. But with him, because he went so left-field with To Pimp a Butterfly, it's now open to where we can do what we want, as long as it's honest."
This year is shaping up to be a big one for TDE, with new projects from labelmates Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, Isaiah Rashad, and SZA all on the calendar. (Jay Rock's next album is currently on pause while he recovers from a motorcycle accident that occurred last month.) "Everybody is almost there," Punch says. "The problem is, when they're almost there, they keep going. So these albums constantly shift and change. But we're going to try to get everybody out this year."
As for TDE's biggest star, Punch hopes Lamar will use some of his downtime this year to explore other creative pursuits. "I want to see him get into acting or write a film," he says. "People don't realize how funny he actually is. It seems like he's so serious and dead-focused on whatever he's on – and he is – but this dude is a complete comedian." Punch describes Lamar's sense of humor as "a combination of the Martin character and Will Smith on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, mixed with Jody from Baby Boy. And a lot of dry wit, too. You gotta get him in the zone. When he's in his zone, he's hilarious."