Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered is a master class in managing expectations. True to its title, each of the eight songs on Lamar’s surprise album is christened simply with a track number and a date, presumably (though not necessarily) signifying when they were recorded. Coupled with the no-frills packaging and nonexistent promotional campaign, it’s as if Lamar has gone out of his way to make it clear these were just some leftover tracks on his laptop, and that in no way should they be mistaken for the proper follow-up to 2015’s critic-awing, Grammy-winning, Obama-adored magnum opus To Pimp A Butterfly, a tough act to follow if ever there was one. But although Untitled begs to be graded on a curve, it doesn’t need to be. Leftovers or not, this is magnificent music from a rare talent working at peak creativity.
One of the few knocks against To Pimp A Butterly was that it was too long, but these outtakes from those sessions testify that, if anything, it wasn’t long enough. For some fans that album always seemed incomplete, since it was missing a stunner of a song Lamar premiered with a live band on The Colbert Report a few months before Butterfly’s release. Even more so than most things associated with Lamar, that Colbert performance has taken on a near-mythical status in certain circles, and subsequent performances of unreleased material on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon and at the Grammys further teased just how much gold Lamar had left in the vault. All those songs are represented here in some form or another, somewhat tweaked from their televised debuts but by and large cut from the same cloth as Butterfly’s sumptuous, live-in-the-studio jazz odyssey.
Many of the same gifted players from Butterfly drift through these tracks, including singers Anna Wise, SZA, and Bilal, pianist Robert Glasper, and bassist-producer Thundercat. It’s all comfortingly familiar, but there are some surprises, too. Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad produced “Untitled 06 | 06.30.2014,” and it’s sheer bliss, cushioning a buttery, Isleys-esque Cee Lo Green chorus with dreamy, cocktail lounge flutes and xylophones. Then “Untitled 07 | 2014-2016” returns Lamar to the battle posture of his instantly iconic “Control” verse; he doles out a cold Jay Electronica dismissal (“I could never end a career if it never start”) before redirecting that fire inward, taking some shots at his own inflated ego (“The flattery of watching my stock rise / The salary, the compensation tripled my cock size”). By now it’s old news that Lamar can rap his ass off, but that doesn’t make it any less of a thrill to hear him do it. “Hope it’s evident that I inspired a thousand MCs to do better,” he fumes. “I blew cheddar on youth centers, buildings, Beamers and blue leather.” Every word, every consonant, every creak and percussive inflection in his voice is placed as precisely as the snare hits and saxophone assists that decorate the record.
Untitled touches on many of the same loaded subjects as Butterfly—racial expectations, self identity, sexual ethics—yet by virtue of its swift, 34-minute runtime, it never feels nearly so heavy as its predecessor. With its tangled metaphorical themes and spoken-word footnotes, that album demanded to be analyzed and debated. Untitled just asks to be enjoyed. Comb through Lamar’s deliberate prose or get lost in the weeds searching for secret meanings in the song title dates if you want (it’s to his credit that Lamar invites that level of engagement), but it’s not a prerequisite; you can just as easily kick back and get lost in the grooves. It may be a while before Lamar releases a project with such low stakes again, so take Untitled for the casual gift that it is: a bonus disc that improbably holds up as an essential album in its own right.