Kendrick Lamar’s unexpectedly released collection of demos untitled unmastered. takes us back to the origins of his Grammy-winning, chart-topping To Pimp a Butterfly (TPAB) and allows us an insider look into the tension and oppositions that shaped Lamar’s masterful album. As a work in itself, untitled unmastered. is neither a mixtape nor quite an album, but the songs, each at a various stage of completion, carry with them the heart of Lamar’s the creative process.

‘untitled unmastered.’ by Kendrick Lamar  Album Review

Parallels have been drawn between Kanye West’s opus The Life of Pablo and this surprise release by Kendrick Lamar, namely in the views of these albums as constantly amended and amendable works due to their primarily digital existence before the official release. But while West insists that this is the best album he’s ever created, Lamar makes no such claims. untitled unmastered. is simple, quiet and unpretentious — a set more in line with a b-sides and rarities project rather than a modification of TPAB.

One way to look at Lamar’s recent release is to think about it in terms of a rough sketch for what his Grammy-winning album would look like. These recording sessions are after all at the heart of TPAB. It’s unclear, however, if this set of songs is meant to be examined separately from the album or as a clarifying extension. In and of itself untitled unmastered. is a raw record of exceptional freestyles. The eight tracks run for a total of 35 minutes but are packed with meaning and sound.

“untitled 01 | 08.19.2014” is full of religious imagery and reflections while at the same time being explicitly sexual. The track is as sensual as it is dark, taking an even more twisted turn once Lamar jumps on the verse and raps about an apocalyptic state of immorality. “untitled 02 | 06.23.2014” opens with the chant “Pimp, pimp, hooray” — a clear nod at TPAB — which is echoed throughout the album. Vocally it is perhaps the most exciting track in the bunch. Lamar manipulated his voice to a raspy and quivering quality, demonstrating what he is capable of prior to the studio alterations. Instrumentally, too, “untitled 02” bears the most resemblance to TPAB, with a recurring freestyle saxophone and layering of synths and beats.

“untitled 3 | 05.28.2013,” which premiered on The Colbert Report several months before the release of TPAB  in March of 2015, has the rapper do what he does best in his lyrics – spilling his poignant observations on race and the music industry with a hint of absurdity and somewhat offensive irony. The uncomfortable lines reduce Asians to Eastern philosophy, Native Americans to the land, African Americans to lust and white people to greed. Songstress SZA joins Lamar for the short haunting interlude “untitled 04 | 08.14.2014.” With this Lamar transitions into the jazz-funk groove of “untitled 05 | 09.21.2014,” where he is joined by Anna Wise and Jay Rock and Punch.

For the remainder of the album, including the 8-minute long epic “untitled 07” with the vague subtitle “2014 – 2016,” Lamar remains jarring in his lyrics, but the album gives in to the faults of its form and conception. In “untitled 07” three separate demos are crammed together in a musically overwhelming rant. This ultimately makes untitled unmastered. is an album of oddities — a bunch of songs with a various sense of completion and clarity, but nevertheless an excellent addendum to To Pimp a Butterfly.

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