It’s nearly impossible to be the best artist in a genre because no matter what you do or have done, everyone is waiting on your next move. When The White Stripes first dropped White Blood Cells and the Lego video for “Fell in Love with a Girl,” everyone was watching for their next move. Frank Ocean had his breakthrough moment with Channel Orange and “Thinkin Bout You,” but everyone waited to see how he’d follow it up. Kanye West broke the mold of hip-hop with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and everyone kept asking “what’s next?” It’s a gift and a curse, but now it’s on the current “greatest rapper alive” Kendrick Lamar.
Compton’s praised musical prophet is coming off the biggest year of his young career, with last year’s near-universally acclaimed Grammy-winning To Pimp a Butterfly album. Topical, jazzy, confrontational and undoubtedly engrossing, To Pimp a Butterfly put nearly every spotlight imaginable on K Dot as the world waited to see how he’d capitalize on his momentum. What the world didn’t know is that he’s been doing it in secret this whole time. With every late night talk show or televised live appearance he’s made in promoting TPAB, Kendrick has performed an untitled song not found on the album without any warning or anticipation. He’s kept mum on the songs, letting them speak for themselves, and kept them from purchase. Now, almost a year to the date of TPAB’s release, Kendrick is capping off his 365-day renaissance with a quicker yet darker coda.
untitled unmastered was a surprise release last Thursday night on digital services like iTunes and Spotify, but its content is no different from TPAB. It’s a mere eight tracks, all untitled with only numbers and dates to label them, and yet it’s another profound statement from Lamar. He brings in the same elements of jazz-funk and free-form musicianship from TPAB to untitled unmastered. He’s got good company in Thundercat, Bilal and saxophonist Terrace Martin. It all compliments Lamar’s talent, as he weaves through the music with lyrical dexterity and ace storytelling skills.
He uses religious imagery to show the world failing around him on the opening track with “Backpedaling Christians settling for forgiveness/Evidence all around us the town is covered in fishes/Ocean water dried out, fire burning more tires out.” So what’s his solution? Just being himself: a rapper not afraid to put his peers in their place (“I can put a rapper on life support/Guarantee that’s something that none of you want”), a once-criminal with a bit of hate still in his heart (“Genocism and capitalism just made me hate/Correctionals and these private prisons gave me a date/Professional dream killers reason why I’m awake”) and a proud outcast (“I recommend every inch of your lunatic ways/Praise the lord, you teach the kids how to be themself and plenty more). While he onced struggled with the allure of fame and success, he sounds much more confident and sure of what the chase for the almighty dollar ends with. On closing track “untitled 08 | 09.06.14.” He sums it all up before the proclamation of “pimp pimp, hooray” caps it all off: (“In today’s day and age we practice the self pity of taking the easy way out /You wait on them, him and her/But when a blessing takes long, that’s when you go wrong.”)
Lamar speaks of the world around him, but is even more poignant when reflecting on himself. “untitled 07 | 2014-2016” breaks down Kendrick’s three-part success story in eight minutes. He starts off thirsty for money and ungodly success shirking all responsibilities, but then looks down on his competition feeling invincible until ending it all with the message of knowing thyself as the universal solution. It’s interesting how Lamar basically maps out the ideal career for someone in the rap industry, and it’s all the more frustrating how he is not on the success level of Future, Drake or Kanye. Lamar should be selling out stadiums and asked to speak on current issues with his grounded mindset on how to live with success.
untitled unmastered feels like Kendrick organizing his thoughts post-TPAB. It’s an epilogue that, despite an unnecessary interlude on “untitled 04 | 08.14.2014.” feels like the closing of Kendrick trying to prove himself. Sure, he’ll spend the rest of his career trying to prove himself to new peers, but here he affirms his preaching and ideologies are legitimate. It’ll probably seem like a throwaway record in the long run, but for now it feels like a new mission statement from the new big thing in rap.