Review: Kendrick Lamar’s 'Untitled Unmastered.'

PHOTO: Kendrick Lamar performs onstage during The 58th GRAMMY Awards, Feb. 15, 2016 in Los Angeles.PlayKevork Djansezian/Getty Images
WATCH 2016 Grammy Awards: The Best Moments of the Night

****1/2

Kendrick Lamar just delivered a quick, surprise follow-up to last year’s amazing “To Pimp A Butterfly,” and it is an eight-track, thirty-five minute dive-bombing record showcasing why and how he’s become one of the most compelling figures currently trying to bring hip-hop back to its essence while also pushing the genre forward.

The album is currently available on iTunes and on Spotify and Tidal. In keeping with its name, the songs on “untitled unmastered.” are left only identified by numbers and dates. The cover is an alluring shade of pea green but again without an actual image. This minimalist approach actually keeps things mysterious and of all the artists working in hip-hop today, Lamar is among a small group of MCs who are harkening back to a pre-hip-hop era. Hanging out with Thundercat and Kamasi Washington has no doubt left an impression and Lamar himself has an other-worldly “jazz-cat” kind of vibe and an innate sense of wisdom beyond his years.

This feels very much like it is in the same space as “To Pimp A Butterfly.” It’s every bit as confrontational and in some circles it will be seen as controversial with its topics and its phrasing, but that comes with the territory. Great hip-hop breaks boundaries and will no doubt make some people uncomfortable. Lamar knows this and his rhymes are filled with an extremely politically-minded fury as he approaches each track with the flexibility and the fearlessness of an unapologetic slam poet. On “untitled 02 | 06.23.14,” he delivers a seemingly stream of consciousness flow that circles both his personal inner-monologue and issues in the geo-political realm. Listening to this, you wonder if this is a collection of tightly put-together words that were purposely written beforehand or possibly a free-styling master at work. Lamar firmly understands how cadence, repetition and rhythm can create a sonically stunning, attention-grabbing concoction.

As he was on “To Pimp A Butterfly,” Lamar continues to be a biting voice on issues of racial tension. When we look back on 2016, his reflections will stand as authoritative examples of protest records that symbolize the turmoil of our time. On “untitled 03 | 05-28-2013,” he explores points of view from the perspectives of people of all different ethnicities, culminating on a reflection on how white people in charge of corporations have routinely exploited hip-hop. If this makes you uncomfortable, you are not this record’s audience. That being said, Lamar is expressing his sense of plight and in a world where Macklemore and Eminem get more press than most other rappers, the notions of inequality are pretty impossible to deny. (Combined with the #OscarsSoWhite controversies, Lamar is just speaking to an obvious bigger problem that needs to be solved.) His goal is equality and how we can learn a lot from each other without exploiting each other for selfish gain.

This collection delivers a rich tapestry of ideas within a very short time. There are repeated mentions of self-respect throughout in a world where people put their endless trust in institutions of government and religion only to be let down by false promises. Lamar is cerebral in his approach. Intelligence and learning to think independently are cherished notions here. Sometimes you need to struggle to achieve greatness and change often doesn’t come easily.

Production-wise, this record is just as sharp as it is lyrically. Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad bring a beautiful bossa nova vibe to the Cee-Lo Green assisted “untitled 06 | 06.30.14,” while the rest of the set showcases many jazz and funk-flavored atmospheric touches. Being that this album comes without credits, information about who is behind what tracks is slowly trickling in across the Internet. Most amazing, however, is the fact that apparently a portion of “untitled 07 | 2014-2016” was reportedly produced by the five-year old son of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys. (A vine has surfaced on Swizz’ Instagram of him making the beat, so it is indeed true.) Hip-hop, I guess, has a new child-prodigy on its hands.

In the end, “untitled unmastered.” plays like the little brother of “To Pimp A Butterfly.” It is just as bold and as compelling even if it is a tad gentler in its attack. Kendrick Lamar continues to effortlessly merge visceral concepts that too often get swept under the rug with often sublime atmospheres. David Bowie cited Lamar as an influence on his final album, “Blackstar.” That was clearly evident. It’s too bad Bowie didn’t live long enough to hear this collection.

Again, this is a highly potent, controversial collection that both earns its parental warning sticker and rocks the boat. It continues to show Kendrick Lamar as one of the most gifted and important figures in recent history to grab the mic.

Its no-frills title is almost meant to have a diminishing effect. This may be a b-sides collection of sorts, but it is very much a vital release that deserves your attention. Here’s hoping it also sees a physical release.

Focus Tracks:

“untitled 06 | 06.30.2014” (Featuring Cee-Lo Green) The union of Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad means that this beat is unstoppably smooth. Younge has been a guest on Muhammad’s excellent NPR Music podcast, “Microphone Check” in the past and the two previously appeared together on record on Souls Of Mischief’s 2014 collection, “There Is Only Now.” Here Kendrick is given the album’s breeziest backdrop to deliver a smooth lament on the album’s recurring themes.

“untitled 03 | 05.28.2013” This is one of the best beats on the set, with a brief global overview of what “peace of mind” means to people around the world. Again, it is as thought-provoking as it is venomous. The beat’s relaxed shuffle creates some nice contrast with some of its more cutting sentiments.

“untitled 05 | 09.21.2014” Here a jazzy groove and a smooth R&B hook gives way a really fierce lyrical attack. A twisting bass-line serves as the track’s backbone with some nice piano accents. Again this is where classic jazz, R&B and hard-edged hip-hop merge together quite effectively.