Kendrick Lamar's Surprise Album Transforms Polished Scraps Into Magic

Kendrick Lamar being godlike at the 2016 Grammy Awards
Kendrick Lamar being godlike at the 2016 Grammy Awards

In the opening stretch of track seven on Untitled Unmastered, Kendrick Lamar runs down what sounds like a list of things that can’t quite elevate you like his music can. It’s mostly a series of nouns, a catalog of positive and negative forces. Love, drugs, fame, chains, juice, crew, hate, life, He, She. They all “won’t get you high as this.” He lists them again, altering his voice with his signature high-pitched accent, alternating between normal and caricature for a span. The second half of the song transitions from trap night out to reflective nightcap, becoming one long breathless boast (“I inspired a thousand emcees to do better,” he raps). One phrase—“levitate, levitate, levitate”—easily lodges into a brain fold. At this point, you’ve once again fallen. The third half of the song is a studio session containing portions of the song you just played three tracks ago. Later you learn that a 5-year-old (Swizz Beatz’s son) helped produce the beat for “Untitled 7.” The entire song, like the untitled album (released as a surprise offering last Thursday), is a genius deconstructed.


From track one (titled “?=”), it doesn’t take long to realize that Untitled Unmastered is a science project. A manifestation of when fucking around in the studio turns into magic. Associated Press describes it as “a new batch of old music,” which is just another way of saying it’s an album. An assemblage of old material, time capsules, some taking years to complete, or months, or minutes (he calls them demos). It’s also a low-key digestif, and makes sense coming after the indigestion from his last album, To Pimp a Butterfly. Kendrick can’t ever be simple. His natural shtick is to polish in layers. And to inspire the same innate body motions as any dance record out now, or as much hedonic movement as a soothing R&B song. And to make another vexingly good album. “Untitled 7” is one of several tracks meant to be stream of consciousness-like rumination, alone-in-a-room rapping. Another song that includes a list is the opening track, where he names in succession: “Preachers touching on boys, rapists, murderers, atheists for suicide, ocean water dried out, deserted college classrooms.” The lack of polish still feels polished.

Illustration for article titled Kendrick Lamar's Surprise Album Transforms Polished Scraps Into Magic

The effect to whoever’s listening is maybe like a small poetry slam get-together in a tight space, or the feel of those old granola lounges with floor cushions for seats. It’s meant to be experienced in fragments, felt as a groove and unwrapped in sessions. “I shall enjoy the fruits of my labor if I get free today” (“Untitled 3”). Not every song hits the spot, but most of them do. You’re at least gonna feel the vibe. “Why you wanna see a good man with a broken heart?” (“Untitled 5”). “I know you, woman, I console you, woman/You feel like the universe owes you, woman” (“Untitled 8"). (That last song reminds me of the California funk album Snoop Dogg released last year that could’ve gotten more love.) This whole thing is cluttered with thoughts and theories, tons of perspectives to peg a review to: sex as a weapon, depression based on money, capitalistic vices, self-love, disaffection with and detachment from religion, embracing of spirituality and sensuality and how that’s often awkward and clunky, black sexuality (“We do it all for a woman from hair cut to a wool/We like to live in the jungle, like to play in the peach”), internal and external love, confidence, body politics, self-destruction.

At least right now, what feels most immediate are the sex and body references slyly intertwined within, existing not just for the sake of pleasure but also equated with corruption, like the many connotations of “fucking” itself (“The salary, compensation tripled my cock size”). Ideas like the one that “head is the answer.” Sonically, I like that it’s expanding on funk and the jazz and urgency of “These Walls,” one of my favorite tracks from TPAB. This album puts you in a free-spirited state of mind, starting with the comical foreplay on track one: “Oh, you want me to touch you right there?/Oh, like a little lamb, play in your hair/Oh you want it? Oh you want it right now/Like that? I got you baby/All on you baby/Push it back on daddy/Push it back on daddy baby.” Another of my favorites, “Untitled 6,” plays as a straight love song (featuring Cee Lo Green) creating a dual narrative of love and self-love. It ends with Kendrick repeating “I am yours,” after he’s rapped things like, “You know the male species can be redundant” (and “I recommend every inch of your lunatic ways”), and after he’s attempted to explain someone’s specialness. Altogether, these bafflingly beautiful scraps are somehow whole.

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I finally got to listen to it last night for the first time, and it’s so dense (in a flourless cake kind of way, not in a Trump supporter way). There’s nothing remotely commercial on it. It’s so artistic though - I can see it being cited as a major influence for artists coming up 10 years from now.