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Kendrick Lamar: untitled unmastered. Review

Music Reviews Kendrick Lamar
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Kendrick Lamar: <i>untitled unmastered.</i> Review

“Look at my flaws, look at my flaws,” Kendrick Lamar pleads on “untitled 06,” wooing a lover by highlighting his imperfections. In the wrong hands, this line would have been self-insulating, insurance against some future transgression, but in Kendrick’s hands the line is a sincere invitation to take the blemishes seriously, to look onto a disfigured face and see the defects and not the dimples.

Featuring many of the same collaborators, themes and sonic templates as To Pimp A Butterfly, untitled unmastered necessarily lives in that album’s shadow. Each song is time-stamped and untitled, stillborn inside the To Pimp a Butterfly session in which it was conceived. But that’s precisely this album’s beauty: instead of shying away from the long shadow of To Pimp a Butterfly, untitled unmastered happily embraces that shared DNA, reveling in the subtleties that set it apart. This isn’t just a collection of b-sides: this is Kendrick’s What If version of his own mythology, flaws as alternate histories, unrealized retcons.

Each of Kendrick’s previous albums has played out like the relaunch of a cape comic. Section.80 presented Kendrick as a product of the Reagan era, a rebel railing against a world designed to exterminate him. good kid, m.A.A.d.city presented him as a neutral observer who was slowly sucked into a life of vice and crime and gangs, rescued at the last minute by Jesus and Top Dawg. To Pimp a Butterfly depicted him as a failed messiah, beaten down by a swarm of enemies, the greatest of which was his own imperfection. untitled unmastered breaks that pattern, allowing its various scenes to be fully rendered, each idea given full life.

“untitled 02” is a funereal death march, Kendrick descending into the abyss. “Get God on the phone,” he yells, slipping into a pained screech, a manic sax and fluttering piano arpeggios swirling around him. The song reeks anguish, from Kendrick’s shrill voice to the sinister, pulsating bass. “I see jiggaboos, I see styrofoams,” Kendrick wails, gasping out his verses, the air seeping from the room. It’s the perfect scene for his dreaded (and sexist) temptress Lucy to make a cameo, but instead of decrying the darkness, Kendrick embraces it. “Get Top on the phone” he declares, summoning his benighted label boss before launching into a tongue-tying marathon of a verse that boasts five flows (!) and a blitzkrieg of searing taunts. This isn’t “Wesley’s Theory,” this is Blade unsheathing the katana.

“Untitled 05” is just as sharp. Placing himself behind the eyes of a heartbroken man on the way to murder his rival, Kendrick barks out a drunken verse, casually swerving through a whirlpool of black American rage. “Justice ain’t free, therefore justice ain’t me,” he declares, rationalizing his coming revenge. “Now I’m drunk, at the intersection parked/ Watch you walk inside your house/ You threw your briefcase all on the couch,” he gloats. Kendrick inhabits the character effortlessly, from the rationalizations, to the anger, to the glee of willfully becoming what society says he is. Even when the man drives away, sparing his rival’s life at the last second, it’s beautifully ambiguous. He’s not just a caterpillar being pimped or a flawed man playing a role in some tortuous allegory; he’s a real person peering over the precipice, and Kendrick both understands him and is him. The sprawling cast of characters on To Pimp a Butterfly didn’t always get this luxury, even Kendrick himself.

A few of the songs are retreads. “untitled 03” and “untitled 08” are groovy tracks where Kendrick uses his experiences on the road and overseas to contextualize his place in the world. “What did the Indian say?” Anna Wise howls on “untitled 03,” prefacing a verse from Kendrick about investing in property, framed as advice from an indigenous American. “Your projects ain’t shit, I live in a hut bitch,” a South African person tells Kendrick on “untitled 08.” This didactic use of the third-person is meant to be humbling, but just like on To Pimp a Butterfly, where Kendrick played ventriloquist to Uncle Sam, Lucifer, God, gold diggers and his homies, among others, the voices sound less like quotes and more like reverberations in an echo chamber.

It’s easy to see the opening of Kendrick’s vault as a cash-in, but there’s an intimacy here that will probably never make it onto any of his future official studio albums. From the raunchy jokes he cracks on the tail-end of “untitled 07,” to the unflinching belief in the Christian rapture that he reveals on “untitled 01,” Kendrick Lamar is a pretty varied guy, as horny as he is existentialist. His harrowed and ongoing metamorphosis into a butterfly is the narrative he’s chosen and is the story he’ll likely will stick with for the foreseeable future, but untitled unmastered shows that the holes in his willed chrysalis might be more interesting than the beauty promised by the cocoon.

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