Kendrick Lamar has long had an interest in using his albums as a format for storytelling. 2012’s Good Kid M.A.A.D City told the story of Lamar’s life growing up in Compton, California. Taking a detail oriented, microcosmic approach, the album looked at issues of inner city violence and generational poverty from the perspective of one young man. Taking a more expansive approach on 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Lamar told a story of American racism and police brutality and the way these issues impacted his sense of self.
On his new surprise release, Untitled Unmastered, Lamar begins to move away from the narrative style of his previous albums. He is still concerned with being a storyteller and a voice for the disenfranchised but has less of an interest here in cultivating a cohesive statement.
Made up primarily of unused tracks from the past few years, Untitled Unmastered moves freely in multiple directions. It has a certain spontaneity that makes it distinct from Lamar’s larger musical statements. With all untitled tracks and a blank album cover, it seems Lamar wants his music to travel in its own organic directions without subscribing to a larger theme or context.
The album opens with “Untitled 1,” a foreboding, jazzy track filled with apocalyptic imagery. Lamar raps, “Life no longer infinity this was the final calling/we all nervous and crying, moving in caution/in disbeliefs our belief’s the reason for all this.” Lamar evokes what he sees as a moral breakdown in American culture, which he sees as caused by a lack of faith. He ties together physical deterioration with spiritual emptiness, emphasizing the unique connection between the internal spiritual life with external political and social strife.
On “Untitled 3”, Lamar finds himself searching for answers on how to better live his life, asking representatives of various ethnic groups. An Asian tells him to seek enlightenment and inner peace through the renunciation of ambition. A Native American tells him to seek land, investment, and material security, an ironic comment on the impact of materialistic values hurting indigenous groups throughout American history. The Black man tells him to seek sexual gratification, with Lamar noting the ways in which a sense of power for oppressed groups can be attained through sexuality. Finally, the White man tells him to seek money, fame and ambition. The concept of one’s soul being driven by materialism is interestingly connected with the historical institution of slavery.
“Untitled 4,” which features vocals from SZA, has a weary soft sound. She sings tiredly in the song’s verse, “And welfare don’t mean well for you, you, you/they tell me that my bill is past due, due, due.” On the chorus, Lamar again tackles the idea of obtaining power through sex with the line, “Head is the answer.” The double meaning of “head” here implies that power comes through both sexuality and education. Lamar himself keeps a low profile on the track. He can only be heard whispering to SZA in the background, as though he is informing her of what to say.
All in all, Untitled Unmastered is a highly diverse and eclectic piece. Lamar brings his typical storytelling and social commentary, but does so in a more free-flowing, less deliberate way. While not as grand a statement as To Pimp a Butterfly, Untitled Unmastered is an effective and important piece in its own right.