Kendrick Lamar’s existential sketchbook

Despite the raw nature of Lamar's newest release, King Kendrick remains on top.

A woman spots Pablo Picasso in the park and asks him to draw a portrait of her. He agrees and completes it in one quick stroke. When asked for the price, Picasso says it is worth thousands of dollars. Appalled, the woman asks him how this is possible if it only took him a moment. “It took me my whole life,” Picasso responds.

The creation of Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered. was seemed to be just as unceremonious. The cover art looks like a stock image, the songs are simply dated like the pages of a notebook, and apparently a five-year-old was allowed to produce a track. This latest release, however, is anything but casual. Like Picasso’s sketch in the park, Lamar displays a refined mastery through his raw demos.

Lyrically, Lamar remains “King Kendrick.” Through new narratives and a flow unmatched by any of his contemporaries, Lamar captures depression, dependency on drugs and alcohol, and institutional racism as effectively as he does on To Pimp a Butterfly. Lamar weaves through complex ideas with ease – in one moment, Lamar faces God on Judgment Day and in the next, he is meditating on Eastern philosophies.

Like To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar uses experimental jazz as the canvas for his slick wordplay. Some of the members of To Pimp a Butterfly’s star-studded cast return: Longtime collaborator and bass extraordinaire Thundercat lays down vintage funk bass lines with a modern flourish on most of the album. Vocalist Ana Wise is also featured on three songs. As for the new collaborators, Lamar is able to bring out the best in them. Cee-Lo Green’s feature in “untitled 06,” for example, is reminiscent of his days in Gnarls Barkley.

Despite consisting exclusively of experimental jazz-infused demos from To Pimp a Butterfly, for better or worse, untitled unmastered. is more approachable to a casual listener. It may be because audiences have had months to digest Lamar’s radical previous album, but songs like “untiled 03,” “untitled 06,” and “untitled 08” don’t have quite the same edge as “Alright” or “Institutionalized.” They have relatively positive messages, and are clearly catered to more of a pop audience.

That being said, one could make a case for the inclusion of “untitled 05” and “untitled 07” on To Pimp a Butterfly. On “untitled 05,” chaotic piano, bass, and saxophone arrangements provide a perfect background for the swirling, violent thoughts of Lamar’s alcoholic persona. Like several tracks on To Pimp a Butterfly, “untitled 07” is broken into distinct parts (the second part produced by Egypt, Swizz Beat’s 5-year-old son), with call-backs to other works.

This release is impressive, but does untitled unmastered. continue a potentially harmful trend to the quality of hip-hop? In past year it seems that selling mixtape material in replace of albums has become the new norm. While fans seem to enjoy the constant release of content, it is impossible to expect untitled unmastered. quality from other artists. The mixtape-album hybrids like Drake and Future’s What a Time to Be Alive are good, but they don’t meet the standards these artists have set for themselves, especially when they are hastily created. What a Time to Be Alive, for example, was recorded in only six days. Considering how commercially successful these releases have been (untitled unmastered. as well as If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late and What A Time to Be Alive all hit #1 on the Billboard charts), this trend will likely continue. Regardless, we should enjoy untitled unmastered. for what it is: mastery.

Rating: A-

Image via Danny Payne/Rex Shutterstock