It’s strange to think of an 80 minute, 16-track album as cohesive. But as dense and sprawling as it was, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is a powerful artistic and political statement that flows organically from the Boris Gardner sample that opens it to the interview with Tupac from beyond the grave that closes it.
So it’s equally strange to think that it didn’t emerge fully formed, or even that Kendrick had anything left to release, and yet here we are less than a year later with untitled unmastered, 35 minutes of unreleased music from the studio sessions that, for one reason or another, were kept off the album; and although they lack the reverence or consistency of Pimp, they are just as passionate, kaleidoscopic and impressive.
Beyond deadlines and sample clearances, it’s clear why most of these songs didn’t make the album. Pimp undoubtedly went to some angry and tragic places, but even at its bleakest it shone a light in dark corners, while a lot of untitled sounds like it lurks in those corners. This is probably in part due to their lack of polish, but songs like “untitled 02” and “untitled 07 ” – the latter of which was, unbelievably, co-produced by Swizz Beatz and Alicia Keys’ 5-year-old son Egypt – have a menace to them that would have sounded out of place.
This isn’t to say that these songs are lesser than their album counterparts; the production, Kendrick’s flow and the variety of the musical and lyrical ideas on display here could go toe-to-toe with anything from Pimp and ”untitled 06″, with its Bossa Nova rhythm, Ali Shaheed Muhammad production and Cee-Lo feature, could easily be a single.
As a matter of fact, in one way untitled is a little more satisfying than Pimp because it lets the listener in on what went into making it. On Pimp Kendrick gave so much of himself, but everything was so tight and considered that it’s practically untouchable. On untitled you can hear him working out new ideas and letting his creativity go on wild tangents, whether through the demo-like feel or the recordings of him literally working through a song. “untitled 02” ends with Kendrick getting ready to do a take and “untitled 07” ends with a lo-fi recording of him jamming on “untitled 04” with his producer Taz and what sounds like Thundercat on bass. It’s weird but gratifying to pull the curtain back a little and hear him mess around and throw ideas at the wall, and it gives untitled an intimacy that Pimp never really betrays.
Top Dawg Entertainment co-president Terrance “Punch” Henderson, who also guests on “untitled 05”, recently talked about untitled being partly inspired by Prince’s pseudo-unreleased Black Album – he and Kendrick allegedly met up during recording sessions for Pimp – and the album does have similar qualities to a Prince bootleg. The songs showcase an artist so on top of his game that he can throw out an album’s worth of songs that didn’t belong on a more “polished” project but nonetheless stand proud on their own merits. The songs also seem familiar but strange enough to hint at some kind of alternate-universe version of the album whose sessions spawned them, giving fans the same indescribable feeling Prince fans get from listening to early configurations of Purple Rain or entirely abandoned albums like Dream Factory.
But beyond stylistic similarities, there’s an ideological underpinning to the music Kendrick has been making recently that also owes a lot to His Purple Badness. Since his beginnings in the 70’s Prince has made a career out of refusing to be labeled and following the beat of his own drum, for 5 years literally living with no name. Meanwhile, with the sheer breadth of styles and ideas he’s brought to the table in what we’ve heard from him over the past year it looks like Kendrick is also resolved not to live in anyone’s shadow – not even his own – but to do anything and everything he wants to do. It turns out that untitled unmastered applies just as much to him as it does his music.