15 Mar 2016

Untitled Unmastered by Kendrick Lamar

From The Sampler, 7:02 pm on 15 March 2016
Kendrick Lamar

Kendrick Lamar Photo: Supplied

Nick Bollinger reviews a surprise release from visiting rap star Kendrick Lamar

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At a time when the music business is going through much-publicised upheavals – from the means of delivery to the revenue streams - some are sticking doggedly to the old ways. Take the album release. There are plenty still getting the big build-up, long roll-out treatment. But that strategy has been challenged these past few weeks by unexpected and totally attention-hoovering releases from the likes of Rihanna and Kanye West. And now this: eight new tracks from the Compton rapper who made last year’s astonishing To Pimp A Butterfly, and who performs at Western Springs in Auckland Saturday March 19.

In some ways it’s hard to even think of this unexpected offering as an album. At 35 minutes, it’s quite a bit shorter than your average hip-hop disc. And if it doesn’t have an overall title, neither does any the individual songs, which are identified only by the date they were recorded. With most of them originating from 2014, it seems they were leftovers from Butterfly.

On that album, Kendrick’s gifts were on full display, from the fluency of his rhymes to the abstract jazziness of his settings, to – perhaps most crucially of all – the way he would continually shift his lyrical gaze between the social and the personal. And that’s what he continues to do in these out-takes.

After an unpromising Barry White-style seduction monologue, which I guess we’ll call foreplay, we get a taste of this rapper’s virtuosity - a Kendrick vision of Armageddon, that looks suspiciously like the America he is already living in.

Though in many ways Untitled/Unmastered is a collection of leftovers, it’s not without its own shape. And you might hear the culmination of these eight tracks in the one that concludes the set, where a typically conflicted Kendrick considers his own success in terms of the plight of other black Americans and ultimately, in the last verse, refugees.

Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled/Unmastered isn’t a follow-up so much as a supplement to To Pimp A Butterfly. But it just reinforces the widely-held contention that he is currently the most important voice in hip-hop, working at the peak of his powers. And with his New Zealand visit imminent, its surprise release couldn’t be more timely.

Songs played: Untitled #1,2,3,5,6,7,8

Untitled Unmastered is available on Aftermath/Interscope