Kendrick Lamar’s half-finished masterpiece

Courtesy of Kendrick Lamar received critical acclaim and the Best Rap Album Grammy for “To Pimp a Butterfly.”

By Zachary Landau | The Duquesne Duke

Courtesy of Kendrick Lamar received critical acclaim and the Best Rap Album Grammy for “To Pimp a Butterfly.”
Courtesy of
Kendrick Lamar received critical acclaim and the Best Rap Album Grammy for “To Pimp a Butterfly.”

It’s difficult to assess Kendrick Lamar’s newest album in the context of the rest of his career. It would not be too far of a stretch to say that Lamar has positioned himself as a staple of the hip-hop scene, with his unique blend of West and East coast influences and impeccable lyrics turning the limelight squarely on him. With his previous album “To Pimp a Butterfly” earning critical acclaim and sweeping the rap category at the Grammys, Lamar has certainly cemented his image with quality and skill beyond reproach.

It is for that reason, then, that “untitled unmastered” comes off as a slap in the face for music critics, at least on a surface level. The album is entirely composed of unfinished demos from the recording sessions of “Butterfly,” each track achieving the bare-minimum to be considered finished. Despite this somewhat haphazard approach, or perhaps because of it, “untitled unmastered” is perhaps Lamar’s best case for his lyrical genius and vocal expertise.

Each song on the eight-track album is unabashedly direct in delivery, being honest with the listener about everything in Lamar’s life: his ghetto roots, his newly found star-power, even his growing image as a philanthropist and activist. Lyrics such as those found in “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013” can come off as offensive in the imagery they provoke, but it is because of lyrics such as “A piece of mine’s/ That’s what the white man wanted when I rhyme” that Lamar is able to have a candid conversation with his audience about his perceptions in his ever-changing world.

The stripped-back nature of the album allows conversations such as this to feel more meaningful. Lamar has always been spectacular at illustrating his world through words, with “good kid, m.A.A.d city” proving his narrative prowess is nearly unmatched. However, much of the concept elements in past albums came from the production and editing (for example, changing the pitch of Lamar’s voice to signify a change in narrator).

However, this lack of production value does little to change the quality of “untitled,” and might actually make it better. The album feels much more personal without the bells and whistles that, when they do appear, feel more like a distraction. It becomes easier to feel Lamar’s sincerity in “untitled 06 | 06.30.2014,” for example, because of its relaxed nature, letting the vocals drive the heartening experience of the track.

And that basically is the paradox of “untitled”: as an album of demos, it should be a disappointment to those who value Lamar’s earlier work for their craftsmanship. However, it actually exemplifies Lamar’s skill as an artist, providing a closer look at the rapper at his most raw and natural state.

Is “untitled unmastered” Kendrick Lamar’s best album? Probably not, but that’s only because “good kid” and “Butterfly,” two exemplars in the rap genre, are also in his repertoire. That’s not to say that it is bad, or even just good; “untitled” is a fantastic album worthy of numerous replays for months to come. Nearly perfect from start to finish, Lamar’s latest work is definitely on my shortlist for album of the year.