UNTITLED UNMASTERED. by Kendrick Lamar
Genre: Conscious Hip Hop
Favorite Tracks: “untitled 01 08.19.2014.,” “untitled 02 06.23.2014.,” “untitled 04 08.14.2014.,” “untitled 05 09.21.2014.,” “Untitled 07 2014-2016.”
UNTITLED UNMASTERED. is a collection of tracks dating to the sessions during which TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY was crafted, some dating back to 2013 and the seventh track featuring works from 2014-2016.
In a lot of ways, this record feels much like a reaction to TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY’s critical reception. Being the dense, political, theatrical record that it was, TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY was heralded by many as one of the greatest albums of 2015 and one of the most significant artistic works of the 10s thus far, and was released when racial tensions became impossible to ignore in America’s political climate, even for the most stubborn whites (also known as people who “don’t see race”). The sessions for both records seems to have spanned the months surrounding the Michael Brown protests and subsequent Black Lives Matter movement that began to spread across the country, some tracks from UNTITLED UNMASTERED. being written within two weeks after the shooting, while others dated to several months beforehand.
Before I continue, I need to make it clear where this is coming from: I am white, non-binary, and able-bodied. I only know my perspective and only feel comfortable speaking from it, as it would be disingenuous to attempt to speak from an experience I have never and will never live. TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY was a record that progressives and neoliberals could praise for “saying the right things,” and yes, it absolutely did ‒ it said much of what needed to be said at the time and it was coming from the superstar platform that Kendrick built up ‒ but at the same time, many took it in and internalized it as a “party record” ‒ it was accessible. Liberal whites could listen to it, and by the very act of listening to a sociopolitically-conscious record that very specifically addressed racism, we could somehow become absolved of our own ingrained racism. Whites’ found yet another way to become un-racist. We could ignore the very implication of our presence and our actions by trivializing Kendrick’s message, trivializing a record lush with racially and politically-charged thought, and phenomenal instrumentation and composition, down to something to get drunk to. There isn’t an overt, physically violent racism like that of white supremacist bigots happening, but a room full of so-called politically aware white people yelling “we gon’ be alright” bears quite a heavy tone of cognitive dissonance. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve been told by white people that it’s okay to say grossly offensive racial slurs as long as it’s part of an art piece (whites, you do remember you used that word to dehumanize black people and justify their systemic subjugation and eradication, and continue to do so, right? It hasn’t stopped just because you were taught in your white schools by white teachers teaching from a white-oriented education system that MLK liberated the whole fucking country from being racist. He didn’t and you’re still racist.).
With this in mind, Kendrick’s release of UNTITLED UNMASTERED. displays an acute awareness of how his music has been digested by the music community. If TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY was Kendrick’s call for people to wake up, he’s screaming now. And that theme can be found throughout much of this record, in that he’s realized what TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY meant, and while having the monumental impact that it did, people still let the issues glaze over them and have refused to change.
Instrumentally, UNTITLED UNMASTERED. is fairly similar to TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY, though some tracks are much darker in tone and atmosphere, and as a whole, none of these tracks could have possibly fit into what TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY became. They do, however, serve much more as a reiteration of TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY’s message, though more cynicism and desperation tends to show through this time. “untitled 01 08.19.2014.” kicks the record off with a dark illustration of the current sociopolitical climate, as depicted through the lense of a rapture scenario. In this sense, much of the record builds off the desperation of the opening track and draws from the defining themes of TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY, clearly defining each one if you couldn’t see it clearly enough before, and driving each and every one home. For example, in “untitled 04 08.14.2014.” he directly criticizes the government’s institutions that have become built on the oppression of its own people, specifically the poor and marginalized, calling for a greater embrace of education with the line, “But head is the answer, head is the future/Don’t second guess yourself.”
In both music and politics we are seeing a crystallization of the spectacle. Yeah, sure, Guy Debord and Jean Baudrillard would say we’ve been absorbed by spectacle for decades now, but today we’ve become so engulfed by it that Kanye’s latest release is defined by it, Donald Drumpf’s rise is defined by it. And here we have Kendrick, understanding his position and the reach his voice has, yelling at America to stop and pay attention to what’s happening and to really put effort into changing it ‒ and at a certain point there aren’t any more words to explain the degree to which we as a society absolutely must change our way of living and do it right now.