Top Dawg Entertainment/Aftermath Records/Interscope Records
By Maura Johnston
March 7, 2016

The ways in which digital distribution has upended the album-release cycle are still being sorted out. Kanye West might well be working on the for-real final version of The Life Of Pablo, which arrived on Tidal—and Tidal alone—in mid-February; meanwhile, eagle-eyed Beyoncé fans are ready to mobilize should she decide to engage in the surprise-release tactic that heralded her self-titled 2013 album.

The latest release from Compton-born MC Kendrick Lamar, meanwhile, takes the idea of the b-sides and rarities compilation—Nirvana’s Incesticide, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Pisces Iscariot—and transforms it into a musical sensation. untitled unmastered., which Lamar released with little advance notice and to much adulation late Thursday, is a victory lap of sorts; even though its title is low-key, the repeating refrain of “Pimp pimp, hooray” nods to To Pimp A Butterfly, the 2015 album that topped critics’ polls and won Grammys. The more-than-extended play, which runs a little over half an hour, is simultaneously off-the-cuff and dense; each of its eight songs is titled with just a number and a date, and a tweet from Cee Lo Green, whose croon snakes through the sinewy “untitled 06 06.30.2014,” would seem to back up the “title as rough estimate of when the song was initially recorded” theory.

Lamar’s prodigious talent for smashing together raw lyrics with forward-thinking music that digs through both physical and digital crates with aplomb is on display throughout untitled unmastered., which opens with a gruff come-on over spilling-together instrumentals; “untitled 01 08.19.2014” then veers into a look back on Lamar’s life replete with heady biblical metaphors that echo present-day news reports (“Ocean water dried out, fire burning more tires out/ Tabernacle and city capital turned inside out/ Public bathroom, college classroom’s been deserted/ Another trumpet has sounded off and everyone heard it”). “I guess I’m running in place trying to make it to church,” he finally raps over an ominous drone; that eventually sinks into a sardonic hymn about the foibles that led him to his present state.

“untitled 02 06.23.2014” rides a trilling saxophone into a corner of the mind where success results in a constant feeling of claustrophobia and dissatisfaction; Lamar squeezes his voice into a tight rasp, while the saxophone sounds like it’s his brain humming underneath his visions of teetering on the precipice of failure. The quick, skittish “untitled 03 05.28.2013,” which Lamar debuted during The Colbert Report‘s late-2014 stretch run, presages the wild success Lamar would experience in 2015; his gimlet-eyed view of the relationships between race and power is sketched out vibrantly and unflinchingly, showing off his technical prowess and his willingness to speak truth to power. (“I holler, ‘What you do? What you say?’/ I shall enjoy the fruits of my labor if I get freed today,” he gasps on the hook.)

The stretched-out “untitled 07 2014-2016” is Lamar’s version of a mini-epic; in addition to its three sections, which lyrically veer between paranoid and boastful, it has a refrain from a young child, a gunshot, lots of bragging, rough sketches of a line that appears (sung by the neo-soul powerhouse SZA) on the brief yet potent “untitled 04 08.14.2014,” and even an interlude where he talks about perhaps being in need of editing. (“This is a 15-minute song, we’re just jammin’ out.”) It’s the sort of view into Lamar’s process that the digital age and its near-infinite amount of recording and distribution space affords—right down to the not-tongue-in-cheek assertion, made by producer Swizz Beatz, that a five-year-old produced part of the track. Not only that, but—in the wake of To Pimp A Butterfly nearly sweeping the best-of-2015 lists—this release lets listeners get excited for what 2016 might bring forth from this still-blossoming talent.

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