Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly came
out a little less than a year ago, on March 15, 2015. The impact it’s had on black music over the past year is incredible. It arguably helped to bring jazz music back into the mainstream, and created success for jazz musicians like Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, and Thundercat. Even an album like Esperanza Spalding’s Emily’s D+Evolution wouldn’t be able to achieve the kind of success (both critical and commercial) that it can now, arguably, without TPAB. It only makes sense that a year on, Lamar should release what is essentially the To Pimp A Butterfly demos: untitled, unfinished and unmastered–the raw b-sides and outtakes that didn’t quite make the album.
It begins with a sexual spoken word intro over some light jazz before Lamar steps in. From the outset, “Untitled 1” establishes untitled unmastered. as an extension of TPAB; the backing track sounds familiar, and Kendrick’s rapping style matches that of the album. “Untitled 2” quickly rose to the top of the charts, and there’s a reason: it’s easily the most bass-heavy track on the album, and in some ways more so than anything on To Pimp A Butterfly. On it, Lamar swaps styles effortlessly, imbuing it with a sense of political commentary in the line “World is going crazy / Where did we go wrong?” while maintaining his terrific sense of pacing and the dialectic between the political and the personal Lamar.
“Untitled 3” is a major standout. Here, Lamar only gets more political, but through a philosophical lens, in which he imagines the definition of success through racialized groups of people. “The asian” sees success as coming from within, and worries about Lamar’s health; “The indian” understands power as being in the land (“Longevity’s in the dirt”), and tells Lamar to invest; “The black man” is motivated by sex (“A piece of pussy / That’s what the black man said I needed to push me”) and talks about living in the jungle and “playing in the peach;” “The white man” wants to make money off him (“Telling me that he selling me just for $10.99”) and causes him to “put a price on [his] talent.”
“I hit the bank and withdraw,” Lamar repeats as the track reaches its climax. “Put myself in the rocket ship and I shot for the stars,” he says, referring now to his personal success. On the song’s outro, Lamar validates “the black man’s” desire for sex as a basic need for reproduction: “Tell em we don’t die / We multiply,” and affirms the survival of the species. Running underneath the surface is a commentary on black extinction, both culturally and ethnically, as blacks are being shot everyday, but are also struggling to hold onto their culture, as black music is appropriated and taken over by the dominant culture.
On tracks 4 and 5 he extends these themes, and eventually treats them humorously in the outro to “Untitled 7.” “Untitled 5” is soulful and smooth, and sounds the most finished of all the songs on the album, bringing up the question of why he didn’t include it on TPAB. Track 8 is from his most recent performance at the Grammys, and is fleshed out here, offering a catchy and compelling conclusion. Perhaps the best thing about this project, though, is what it does to Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. When Kendrick Lamar can drop a brilliant 8-track album of TPAB demos out of nowhere, it makes TLOP, a forever-streaming Tidal exclusive, and its creator, the abominable West, irrelevant. Lamar has proven again and again that he’s Top Dawg of the rap world, and with untitled unmastered. he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.