During his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy studio sessions, Kanye West told producer Statik Selektah that jazz was dead. Statik responded with the jazz-inspired album What Goes Around, with features from Snoop Dogg, Joey Badass, and Action Bronson. It was met with widespread critical acclaim.
A year later, Kendrick Lamar dropped the super-jazzy To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB). Ever heard of it? Album of the year from Billboard, Complex, Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and Vice. Eleven Grammy nominations. I have friends who think that TPAB “transcends hip-hop.” People simply have not stopped jerking off to it.
Enter Untitled Unmastered. Some say that NBA star LeBron James requested this body of work to be released. Like so many records in recent times, it was ‘leaked’ on Spotify earlier in March (Top Dawg Entertainment CEO blames Interscope Records for “fucking up [their] release”). Hype sells, and we’re all buying.
It is difficult to talk about this release without reference to TPAB, as the former is a culmination of the demo sessions from the latter. You can certainly hear it. We have heard some of it before. Kendrick performed “untitled 03” on The Colbert Report, “untitled 08” on The Tonight Show, and “untitled 05” at the Grammys. All of those tracks were met with praise, and it turned out that this was because they were excellent representations of the socially conscious, jazz-inspired hits that we would hear in TPAB.
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With Untitled Unmastered, we have the funky leftovers from that album. But they certainly are leftovers, and they’re not quite ready for us to eat. None of the tracks have actual titles. They aren’t mixed or mastered either. Never has an album title been so literally accurate since the Talking Heads’ The Name of This Band is Talking Heads.
Perhaps this is why the album suffers. The second half of “untitled 07” is an unnecessarily long skit with Kendrick and the bassist. “untitled 04” is needlessly avant-garde, and is clearly filler material. With a mere runtime of 34 minutes, we have to ask, is Kendrick stalling?
Yet if we’re asking this question, we’ve missed the point. Untitled Unmastered intends to show that TPAB still has something to offer. If polished, none of these demos would sound out of place in that record. “untitled 01” is a spitting image of “Wesley’s Theory”, “untitled 06” could be played in elevators without a hitch, and “untitled 05” absolutely belongs on the final release of TPAB. You can hear bassist Thundercat dominating “untitled 08”, a constant that can be heard in Kendrick’s previous release.
In fact, this compilation provides a unified set of ideas derived from hood politics. We saw this theme being played out in his last album, but that political and social message is just as strong. Kendrick is still unhappy with the government (“Justice ain’t free, therefore justice ain’t me”), has the self-awareness of his success (“A rapper chasing stardom, how can I fast forward? My accolades better than all them”), and even manages to include a repeated catchphrase like he did in TPAB—all while celebrating that very album: “pimp, pimp, hurray.” For a compilation album, this is a fairly cohesive final product.
I’m not going to argue that the raw sound quality of the album was intended to reflect the raw political message of the album—I’m not your damn high school English teacher. However, I can say that Untitled Unmastered is an enjoyable collection of demos which somehow ends up being a more polished product than The Life of Pablo. Sorry Kanye, jazz isn’t dead—not in the slightest.