On “Mortal Man”, the closing track to last year’s hip-hop masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar conducts an interview with the late Tupac Shakur on the state of black life in America. At one point, Kendrick asks, “What do you think is the future for me and my generation?” Tupac responds gravely. “Next time there’s a riot, there’s gonna be bloodshed.” He paints a dystopian future of interracial fighting, referencing the Nat Turner riots of the 1830s. It a genuinely frightening and shockingly poignant statement; Tupac gave that response in 1995, and the recent tragedies involving Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, and so much more make it seem like Tupac was a genuine visionary.
Kendrick’s newest project, untitled unmastered., seems like the epilogue to that conversation. The dystopia described in this latest release is terrifying. The creative imagery of these eight untitled tracks is violent and foreboding to match the music that comes along with it. “untitled 01” is a four-minute track with a three-minute verse; it’s the best rapping we’ve seen from Kendrick since his “Control” verse. The setting is post-apocalyptic. “The tallest building plummets, cracking, and crumbling/ The ground is shaking, swallowing young woman/ With a baby, daisies, and other flowers burning in destruction/ The smell is disgusting, the heat is unbearable,” Kendrick spits. It seems to be the result of these riots that Tupac described, but the listener is left unsure of whether Kendrick is condoning this revolution or not.
The chants of “Pimp pimp, hooray!” on “untitled 02” add to the themes of revolution. It seems like Kendrick is leading his followers to some sort of battle. He describes his experiences of rappers existing as tools of their white labels, being “enslaved” by their contracts. “I see jiggaboos/ I see styrofoams” is a shot at the codeine-soaked state of mainstream hip-hop today. It’s an interesting entrance into rap elitism that we don’t see very often from Kendrick, but it suits him well. “untitled 03” is the track that Kendrick debuted on the Colbert Report in early 2015 leading up to the release of To Pimp A Butterfly. He describes interactions with his label representative; “You’ll lose your core following/ You’ll win it all” is a criticism of how great underground rappers abandon their distinct sound in an attempt to make it big commercially. Thank goodness that Kendrick hasn’t fallen into that trap.
Jay Rock gives the appearance of his life on “untitled 05”, where he and Kendrick discuss their respective hometowns — both suburbs of Los Angeles (Watts for Jay, Compton for Kendrick). They give their laments about a capitalist system that monetizes prisons and proliferates stereotypes in the name of profit. “untitled 06” has a beautiful CeeLo feature, although this is the one track on the record that overstays its welcome. It may have been a decent interlude in the vein of “For Sale?” from To Pimp A Butterfly with a little fat-trimming, but the reality is that Kendrick holds tight to the untitled unmastered. title.
The crux of this album, “untitled 07”, is an eight-minute opus that has a trap flavor that reminds me of the more commercial sound of good kid, m.a.a.d city. Even with that sound, it’s still far more experimental than anything on that album, with its trilling keyboards and woozy synthesizers. The repetitive verses and refrains are intoxicating and are a hip-hop fan’s dream. I haven’t mentioned much about the instrumentals and production of the album, but they’re about what you would expect. That’s not to say that they’re not exciting — quite the opposite. This is beautiful jazz music with hip-hop beats. Kendrick’s collaborators (most notably saxophonist and composer Kamasi Washington and bass virtuoso Thundercat) remain at the top of their game, and help to create cohesiveness in an album full of B-sides that didn’t make it onto To Pimp A Butterfly.
untitled unmastered. is a statement from the best rapper of our generation. Kendrick has never really set out to be a black leader, but he’s exhibited that quality better than most. I think he knew what he was doing with this album title; I can think of at least two black leaders throughout history who dropped their titles in the name of inclusivity and equality. That would, technically, make them untitled. What do you call a slave that’s been freed? “Unmastered.”