Kendrick did the unexpected last night (March 3) and dropped an entire album of cuts taken from his ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ sessions from 2013 and 2014 – although one of the tracks, the eight-minute ‘untitled 07 2014-2016’, has been in the works for three years, and other parts of the album have since been recycled for Kendrick’s recent one-off TV performances. Egypt, the 5-year-old son of Alicia Keys and SwiZz Beatz, has allegedly produced part of one track, there’s an appearance by singer Cee Lo Green, plus help from some of Kendrick’s frequent collaborators, including Thundercat and Anna Wise. ‘untitled unmastered.’ is a shorter, more uneven release than ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ – and some of it is even darker than its predecessor – but it gives fans a fascinating insight into Kendrick’s creative process. Here’s our first-listen verdict.
1. untitled 01 08.19.2014.
It’s an unashamedly apocalyptic opening to ‘untitled unmastered’, with references to the Book of Revelation and its Judgement Day trumpets. Here’s a taster: “The smell is disgusting, the heat is unbearable/Preachers touching on boys run for cover, they paranoid/Rapists and murderers hurdle alleys/Valleys and high places turn into dust“. If the dates on these tracks are their completion dates, then this track is from the same nightmarish sessions that produced the whispered creepiness of ‘untitled 04’. Once the impending doom of ‘untitled 01’ strikes, Kendrick seems to say, there will be permanent, world-bettering change – but will everyone make the grade on Judgement Day?
Key lyrics: “No more running from world wars/No more discriminating the poor“
2. untitled 02 06.23.2014.
“Pimp pimp!… Hooray” on this track is the first mention of an album-spanning refrain, bigging up ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, Kendrick’s game-changing release last year. ‘untitled 2’ is a chin-stroking track about faith, gifts from God and the ostentatious material indulgence of his peers. “Stuck inside the belly of the beast/Can you pray for me?” he asks. Alongside faint saxophone squalls and cloying synths, the navel-gazing of this track’s second half was later transformed for Kendrick’s Fallon performance in January 2016. There it was an electrifying finale to the first half of what, on this album, is ‘untitled 08’. Here, though, it’s rather more miserable, as Kendrick ponders ending his sensible streak and going on a huge splurge.
Key lyrics: “Water’s like twenty-five hundred a month/What if I empty my bank out and stunt?“
3. untitled 03 05.28.2013.
The oldest of the lot was performed by Kendrick in December 2014 on The Colbert Report – months before ‘TPAB’ came out – apparently because he didn’t want to reveal any of the tracks on it at that stage. Frequent collaborator Anna Wise sets up Kendrick’s reflections on race in America – “What did the ___ say?” is her intermittent vocal here – while Kendrick discusses the strengths and weaknesses of each race in America. Latterly he focusses his attention on the white man as a music executive exploiting him, “selling me just for $10.99“. Missing from this version, though, are the fiery final lines from the Colbert performance: “What the black man say?/Tell ’em we don’t die, we multiply“.
Key lyrics: “I shall enjoy the fruits of my labor if I get freed today“.
4. untitled 04 08.14.2014.
The shortest song on the album is filled with feverish whispers. Most of the vocals aren’t even Kendrick’s, but his empowering, pro-education message still makes itself felt.
Key lyrics: “But head is the answer, head is the future/Don’t second guess yourself“
5. untitled 05 09.21.2014.
Though this track maintains the fluid jazz of what we’ve heard so far, here we’ve almost got a memorable melody in the track’s bassline, backed by permanently crashing cymbals and Robert Glasper on keys. Anna Wise opens up the track, with other feature slots from his label, Top Dawg Entertainment’s Punch and Jay Rock. While Kendrick mourns loss of faith (“Once upon a time I used to go to church and talk to God/Now I’m thinkin’ to myself, hollow tips is all I got“) he also struggles to contain his fury at treatment of and expectations for minorities in the US.
Key lyrics: “Correctionals and these private prisons gave me a date/Professional dream killers reason why I’m awake.”
6. untitled 06 06.30.2014.
Jazz flute and Cee Lo Green introduce this much lighter track, produced by Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad, in which Kendrick seems to be addressing a girl he’s trying to impress. But is he? Some lines seem to show him plagued by self-doubt. “I want God,” he sings. “Both sides of me are evenly odd/It’s attractive/You’re intrigued“.
Key lyrics: “Look at my imperfections and all/Look how you think that my mystique is a round of applause.”
7. untitled 07 2014-2016
“Pimp pimp… Hooray!” – also the final line of the whole album – makes its return here, with Kendrick apparently rapping over beats created by Egypt, the 5-year-old son of Alicia Keys and SwiZz Beatz (in part two, as evidenced below. He also gets a shout-out mid-song).
It’s a three-part, 8-minute marathon about transcending excess (“Two keys… Bentleys…“) and his superiority to his peers (“I could never end a career if it never start“.) In the ultra-lo-fi final part, Kendrick appears to take a new swipe at Drake, calling him out by name in a ‘bam’-filled ‘dick you down’ metaphor: “You just make me wanna Drake you down“.
Key lyrics: “Levitate, levitate, levitate, levitate.”
Key lyrics: “You just make me wanna Drake you down/To the ground, to the ground ground“
8. untitled 08 09.06.2014.
Pure G-funk rounds off the album. This track – about the futility of hopelessness in the face of adversity – was mashed up with ‘untitled 2’ for Kendrick’s bruising Fallon performance in January. Like everything else on the album, there’s little optimism here, but he cushions his anger and disappointment with irresistibly feel-good vibes, suggesting there may be hope after all.
Key lyrics: “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 too long, that’s when you go wrong/You selfish motherfucker.”