Review: Kendrick Lamar – untitled unmastered.

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A bold addendum to his 2015 masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly, this unusual collection of demos overflows with Kendrick Lamar's typically sardonic wit and biting social commentary.

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“Pimp pimp… Hooray!” Such is the mantra of untitled unmastered., a gleefully sarcastic indictment of hip-hop culture (or more precisely its media-driven stereotypes) that typifies this Kendrick Lamar compilation. It acts as an adhesive, in the same way that the gradually unraveling poem/monologue did on To Pimp A Butterfly, soldering together the many disparate sounds and moods that encompass the album. In fact, it’s a wonder that on these two records there is any cohesion whatsoever, considering his haphazard yet somehow seamless fusion of many of the styles that pepper the rich history of black music – free jazz, soul, R&B, funk, and of course hip-hop. This broad musical eclecticism, at times akin to that of OutKast, perfectly compliments the diversity in themes and tones employed in Kendrick’s lyrics, such as the tension between his own high-flying lifestyle and the sobering reality of his crime-ridden neighbourhood of Compton, California.

Lamar doesn’t hold back on this one, assaulting us with a barrage of complex, radically contrasted ideas, and thankfully no attempt to explain them, leaving us to ponder some of the more puzzling moments. The opening track, ‘untitled 01 08.19.2014.,’ is a case in point – after a near-pornographic prologue that plays like Barry White on Viagra, we’re thrown into a heady post-apocalyptic nightmare of paedophile priests and marauding murderers ravaging an ironically Biblical landscape of chaos and destruction. Once the Judgement Day carnage has has died down, we’re left with a mellow epilogue that imparts some deceptively simple wisdom – “Whatever makes all of you happy in this bitch / Just take it all back before the light switch.” In other words, when the light goes out will our hedonism amount to anything? Will we achieve redemption? Will we be saved? This throws new light on the seemingly trivial opening skit, recontextualising it as a means to the end of demonstrating a spiritual quest; a reevaluation of life’s experiences in the context of impending doom. It elegantly welds together the seemingly disparate opening and the following Biblical carnage in a meaningful way that we couldn’t have at first anticipated. And all of this in only the first track on a compilation of discarded records! Cor blimey Kendrick, throw us a bone…

Since it draws from the same sessions, it is unsurprising that untitled unmastered. is brimming with the same collaborators that show up on To Pimp A Butterfly. Thundercat’s deliriously funky bass appears on six tracks, even though he apparently wasn’t aware of the compilation’s existence until “maybe a day before” its unveiling; Anna Wise provides a gorgeously smokey vocal on ‘untitled 05 09.21.2014.;’ Bilal bequeaths us the aforementioned prologue on ‘untitled 01 08.19.2014.;’ and CeeLo Green highlights what To Pimp A Butterfly was missing with a weird and wonderful vocal contribution to ‘untitled 06 06.30.2014.,’ a strangely elevator-lounge-sounding number that sits somewhat at odds with the prevailing broodiness of the album, despite being suitably eclectic. Without his many collaborators, Lamar would still undoubtedly produce great music, but the element of musical variety that they inevitably bring to the overall sound and feel of his work is what makes it so unique. Without them he could very easily become, despite his extraordinary wit and intelligence, just another ten-a-penny rapper in a saturated market. Instead, it is his ability and willingness to subordinate his own ego and entrust many of the key musical decisions to his collaborators that makes his work so essentially mercurial, and what keeps it so continually refreshing to listen to. After only three studio albums, he has forged a paradoxical identity; invariably variable, consistently inconsistent, predictably unpredictable. At every step in his career he confirms expectations whilst simultaneously confounding them, leading us to ask with great anticipation, what will he do next?

untitled unmastered. is out now via Aftermath and Interscope

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A curmudgeonly Music student who likes to spend his days watching an obscene number of films whilst growing increasingly grumpy with the noise-mongers around him. He has on occasion also been sighted out and about performing with his band Nine Ace Deck, for whom he sings and writes songs. And when not doing either of the above, he takes great pleasure in composing music for the short films of the Wessex Films Society. Make sure to like his Facebook page (above right) to keep up with all the latest ramblings...

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