Bathed in police-blue lights and with his hair twisted into jagged spikes, Kendrick Lamar delivered the first taste of ‘untitled unmastered.’ during an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s US TV show in September 2014. The Compton rapper twitched through a nameless track that depicted the white man as a music exec “selling me just for $10.99”, and appears on this surprise release fourth album as ‘untitled 03’. Sixteen months later, in January 2016, came an electrifying performance of ‘Untitled 2’ on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show. That song, it turns out, combines two of the eight here – G-funk jam ‘untitled 08’ and the morose, synthy ‘untitled 02’.
Few people predicted a new Kendrick Lamar album would come so quickly after March 2015’s magnificent ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, a record so great popular opinion suggested its sheer quality had delayed Kanye West’s ‘The Life Of Pablo’. It was a politically-charged game-changer that directly addressed Kendrick’s hero Tupac Shakur, featured a chorus that was chanted at an anti-police harassment protest at Cleveland State University (‘Alright’), and earned 11 Grammy nominations, more than Taylor Swift and The Weeknd. It was easy to be bowled over by its 80-minute exploration of America’s racism and Kendrick’s mental health.
‘Pimp pimp… Hooray!‘, the intermittent phrase spanning ‘untitled unmastered.’, ties it superficially to its predecessor – but does it match up? Coming at an opportune midpoint between the two other biggest rap releases of 2016 – ‘The Life Of Pablo’ and Drake’s upcoming ‘Views From The 6’ – it continues to uncompromisingly address civil rights across eight tracks of jazz-filtered hip-hop. But Kendrick has called the album “unfinished demos” and each song comes with a date, suggesting it was mostly recorded during the ‘TPAB’ sessions in 2013-2014.
It would be easy to view it, then, as a 34-minute collection of B-sides, but the thematic progression here runs smoothly from the doom-laden, sample-filled apocalypse of ‘untitled 01’ (“Preachers touching on boys run for cover… Valleys and high places turn into dust”) to the final track’s perspective-swapping scorn of self-pity (“Your projects ain’t shit, I live in a hut, bitch”), via faith, materialism and racial profiling. The lo-fi, meandering ‘untitled 07’ jars slightly, but mostly these recordings show Kendrick as an artist constantly in motion.
There are few unfamiliar messages and it’s all dense and considered, but never overwrought or explicitly angry. What really emerges is Kendrick’s nuanced worldview: he knows he’s a big deal but resents his wealth and ego, and is constantly considering his standpoints on faith, police brutality and black America. Apart from a verse from Cee Lo Green on ‘untitled 06’, there are no big surprises.
But if this really is just a collection of offcuts, we can only join the cheers of “Pimp pimp… Hooray!”