Kendrick Lamar's latest album might be untitled, but it certainly mastered the art of leaping over expectations with one magnificent surprise.
The Compton rapper's untitled unmastered. is a collection of eight title-less tracks, some of which were performed on late-night television following the release of his last album, others heard here for the first time. In other words, it's a release that welcomes skepticism. After all, Lamar dropped the near-universally praised To Pimp a Butterfly less than a year ago — not to mention the fact that untitled unmastered. apparently saw the light of day largely because of a Twitter exchange between LeBron James and Top Dawg Entertainment CEO Anthony Tiffith.
Thankfully, the vagueness of the title and the somewhat mystifying release don't signify, as some feared, a lack of identity — these songs might be demos originally intended for Lamar's previous project, but untitled offers a surprisingly cohesive, unsurprisingly excellent glance into the musical mind of rap's most intriguing MC.
For all its sonic experimentation, To Pimp a Butterfly rarely eschewed traditional song structure, its stories of systemic and personal turmoil tightly packaged into rap verses separated by soul- and R&B-inspired hooks. While the instrumentation on untitled unmastered. pulls from the same gumbo of African-American musical tradition, much of the semblance to standard rap composition is missing. These are freewheeling, experimental, unbound songs that (for the most part) avoid the trappings that frequently come with those descriptions.
From the unsettling introduction of "untitled 01" to the whispered secrets of "untitled 04," the album plays with expectations in ways other rappers wouldn't even consider. Nearly every song on untitled requires multiple listens to decipher, though usually just one to enjoy. Lamar's lyrics are as dense as ever, and the vibrant production transforms constantly. It matches the structure of these tracks, which seem both haphazardly thrown together and incredibly calculated, drawing inspiration from the rules and styling of improvisational jazz.
Of course, untitled's experimentation is a success largely because it results in some of the most upbeat, exciting Lamar tracks in recent memory and — despite the TPAB ties — offers something for fans of any of the rapper's distinct sounds.
"untitled 06" and "untitled 08" are brilliant slices of bouncy, funk-influenced hip-hop, drawing from songs like TPAB's "These Walls" and the good kid, m.A.A.d city bonus track "Now or Never." "untitled 06" is particularly enjoyable, with dancefloor-ready drums, floating keys and an absurdly catchy CeeLo Green hook that could be part of a long-lost Gnarls Barkley cut.
"My mama told me that I was different the moment I was invented/ Estranged baby, no I'm not ashamed/ I recommend every inch of your lunatic ways," Lamar raps on the track, an ode to individuality. It's a notion he repeats more than once on the album. If TPAB left any doubts as to whether rap's most self-aware artist knew his importance, untitled unmastered. removes them.
In fact, Lamar spends the majority of the album's 34 minutes alternately pursuing the strange, revolutionary jazz-rap he wants to make and proving why he's the rapper to do it.
On part two of the eight-minute "untitled 07" (apparently produced by the 5-year-old son of Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys), Lamar spits "You niggas fear me like y'all fear God/ You sound frantic; I hear panic in your voice/ Just know the mechanics of making your choice and writin' your bars" with a confidence he lacked in even the scorched-earth delivery of his 2013 war cry on Big Sean's "Control."
He might not be flexing in the traditional sense (though trap-flavored beats like "untitled 02" and "untitled 07" are practically begging for it), but the project is exactly what it would appear to be: a victory lap. If it doesn't seem to be the genre-pushing opus TPAB was, that's because it's not. Everything here has been heard before in Lamar's music, from the rapid-fire flows to the melodic hooks sung in strange voices. But the familiarity hardly softens the impact.
There's a reason LeBron James — and thousands of fans — took to Twitter to beg for these tracks after hearing just two of them performed on TV: They're great songs from an even better rapper. Few musicians — especially those only commercially successful since 2012 — could create such excitement over a collection of demos dropped out of nowhere. But then again, few artists make demos this fully realized and great. And while they might be untitled, unmastered and unfinished, they're certainly not uninspired.