It’s impossible to talk about untitled unmastered. without discussing what came before it. To Pimp A Butterfly was one of the most universally loved albums of 2015, perhaps of the decade. It spawned both hit singles in ‘i’ and ‘King Kunta’ and an anthem for Black Lives Matter protests in ‘Alright’, won numerous Grammy’s and cemented Kendrick’s place in the rap canon. Over the past year he’s done numerous TV performances, but notably two of them featured tracks that sounded like they were from To Pimp A Butterfly but were nowhere to be found on the record. After some prompting from LeBron James of all people, Kendrick’s label TDE has released those tracks and a few other demoes as untitled unmastered.
To be completely clear, this is not a Kendrick Lamar album per se. There’s no storyline or a poem that ties it all together or conversations with deceased icons. These are basically the B-sides, admittedly the B-sides of one of the most critically acclaimed and revered albums of the past several years, so set expectations accordingly.
The eight tracks, largely recorded in the second half of 2014 during the sessions for To Pimp A Butterfly, vary a lot in vibe and quality. None of them stretch to the sprawling, epic level of some tracks on TPAB but feel more like in-the-moment takes, closer to the album version of ‘i’ rather than the more detailed tracks like ‘These Walls’. That’s not to say any of them are terrible, the spontaneity is part of the charm, just some tracks definitely feel more finished than others. Out of the more developed tracks, ‘untitled 06’ is perhaps the closest to feeling like it could fit on TPAB due to its very jazzy beat and vocal feature from Cee Lo Green, while the production on ‘untitled 01’ is almost Dr. Dre-esque while still retaining the jazzy sound palette, a descending piano riff punctuating every few bars and a heavy, groaning bassline. ‘untitled 08’ also feels close to finished, featuring a very synthetic funk beat over which Kendrick raps about the financial difficulty of escaping gang culture.
Even the more unfinished tracks that seem to be lacking structure due to a repetitive beat or lack of a clear hook are still interesting from both a fan perspective and lyrically. ‘untitled 02’ sounds like it might be the basis for ‘u’ from To Pimp A Butterfly, sharing very similar intros and saxophone lines that on the album soundtrack Kendrick’s descent into self-destruction, but here is backed with Future-esque kick drums and snares, giving it a very druggy and dark feel, with Kendrick’s flow reflecting this by stretching out his words in a very long and slurred cadence.
‘untitled 07’ is the longest track on the project at eight minutes and by far the messiest. It’s basically three freestyles with different beats all shoehorned into one track. The first has a woozy beat with reversed guitar lines and a great hook and I’d rather this had been developed into a full song rather than being part of this medley. The second is just OK, nothing notable other than a potential Jay Electronica diss and a stark drum beat. The third sounds like an ad-libbing session that got recorded by accident, in a bad way, and it’s the only moment on the album which seemed like it should have been left on the cutting room floor rather than salvaged.
This project is great in its best moments and still interesting in its worst. It’s fan service more than anything, a final exploration of the world of To Pimp A Butterfly before Kendrick inevitably moves onto his next album proper, although if you didn’t like To Pimp A Butterfly, you definitely won’t like this. If you did like it, then this is a must listen project.
Words by Jack Hollis