The Breakdown: Untitled Unmastered, by Kendrick Lamar

Micah: Out of nowhere, Kendrick Lamar dropped a collection of tracks that fell to the cutting room floor while work was being done on To Pimp a Butterfly. Allegedly Lebron James had something to do with motivating Top Dawg to put this out. If that is the case, then I cannot thank Lebron enough. Kendrick is arguably the best rapper doing it right now and anything he releases deserves a listen. Let’s go.

Henry: The fact that this collection of outtakes plays better than most rappers feature LPs speaks to Kendrick’s talents as a musician, but even more to his talents as an editor. Making the decision to cut these admittedly good songs from the final album in the interests of creating a tighter, more narratively cohesive piece is impressive, and indicates a level of intentionality that is seems to get overlooked all too often.

 

1. Untitled 01 | 08.19.2014

Produced by Hit-Boy & DJ Spinz

Micah: The intro to the opening track is very off putting. I don’t know why these kinds of skits exist, because I don’t want to hear some dude getting it on. Nope, no thanks. Who enjoys this kind of stuff? Anyway, once the song moves past that it’s nothing but relentless bars from Kendrick. The instrumental is dark and unobtrusive, leaving Kendrick out front and center. I like this one a lot, but if it was placed on Good Kid, M.A.A.D City or To Pimp a Butterfly, it would have been out of place. This song is great on its own, tho. It will definitely be in rotation. I love when the song slows down around three minutes and twenty seconds.

Henry: These kinds of skits exist precisely to make you uncomfortable, I think. This one is meant to get your attention. A huge part of To Pimp a Butterfly was examining the strange confluence of sex and power and money that is the modern American entertainment industry, which has always been emblematic of the ideals of neoliberal capitalism. It’s the shiny, sexualized facade that masks a brutal system of economic and social disenfranchisement. Oh, you want me to touch you right there / like a little lamb / play in your hair, becomes a play on the lord is my shepherd, but this shepherd wants to fuck. Weird, disturbing power relations are going on here. Then from the sex scene, Kendrick takes us right into his vivid vision of the apocalypse. It’s happening.

 

2. Untitled 02 | 06.23.2014

Produced by Yung Exclusive & Cardo

Micah: Pimp! Pimp! Hooray! I love this song. The instrumental on this second track is much more forward and engaging than the first. I love the saxophone work, which I can only assume is either Terrace Martin or Kamasi Washington. Kendrick’s flow is measured and inventive. This track feels more complete than many of the others on the album. Lots of textural stuff going on in the background. You’d think that Kendrick’s wordplay would be subpar on a release of throwaway tracks, but his lyrical content is as strong as ever. He is showing his versatility both lyrically and vocally. Definitely one of the stronger songs on the E.P. Who doin’ the drums?!

Henry: Judging by the intro sax riffs, I feel like this song may have come after “For Free” on an earlier version of To Pimp A Butterfly. This kind of slow spacey production is all over the place with big name rappers these days, but nobody really uses that space the way K.Dot can. I love the layered vocals, the different flows and voices and that give this song a really interesting dimension.

 

3. Untitled 03 | 05.28.2013

Produced by Astronote

Micah: If you’ve been following Kendrick’s late night talk show appearances you’ll recognize this one. I’ve had this in rotation for months as “Untitled 1” ripped from his Colbert performance. This version is shorter, and Kendrick’s vocal delivery is much more subdued and contemplative. In a way I miss the explosiveness of the live version, but I appreciate having this more polished version without the crowd noise.

This outtake might capture best what I love most about the entire E.P, the live sound. More than any mainstream Hip Hop artist Kendrick has captured the live feeling reminiscent of James Brown and Miles Davis. If you go to a run-of-the mill rap concert, you’re most likely getting a bunch of adlibs shouted over the complete song–no instrumental. Kendrick sounds like a member of the band, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that this song had no overdubs. It feels like everybody is locked in and together.

Henry: I totally agree with your point about the full band feel of Kendrick’s work as of late, and I think that his understanding of his voice as an instrument that can fill in all kinds of different spaces within the sound of a group is what puts him on another level. His little cries, his different cadences and voices all seem perfectly orchestrated.

 

4. Untitled 04 | 08.14.2014

Produced by Bizness Boi, Nard & B

Micah: This is the shortest song on the E.P., clocking in under two minutes. It’s nice to hear Kendrick take a break from straight bars to instead sing with SZA and even Jay Rock. How often do your hear rappers from Compton crooning over some jazz? Weird, but I like it.

Henry: Head is the answer. Head is the future. Don’t second guess yourself. I like this little interlude, and I like Kendrick singing it again himself at the end of “Untitled 7.” It becomes a little refrain for the project, and lines that could be from an early N.W.A. song about blowjobs somehow get twisted into and uplifting message about personal power and self-assuredness.

 

5. Untitled 05 | 09.21.2014

Produced by Nard & B

Henry: This might be my favorite beat on the album. Love that Thundercat bass, and Robert Glasper on the keys just brings it home. This song would feel right at home on Black Radio. Give me a whole album with this lineup and I can die happy.

Micah: Thundercat’s bass lines are so distinctively goofy, yet hard hitting. There is no one out there coming out of left field like Thundercat that is also able to stay in the pocket so effortlessly. Meanwhile, Kendrick is introspective and vulnerable, while delivering his most captivating verse on the album. Why you wanna see a good man with a broken heart? / Once upon a time I used to go to church and talk to God / Now I’m thinkin’ to myself, hollow tips is all I got / Now I’m thinkin’ to myself, hollow tips is all I got / Now I’m drinkin’ by myself, at the intersection parked. This imagery of desperation and sorrow would have fit right in on Good Kid. This is definitely one of the strongest songs on the E.P., lyrically.

 

6. Untitled 06 | 06.30.2014

Produced by Ali Shaheed Muhammad & Adrian Younge

Micah: The more I listen to this song, the more I like it. It reminds me a lot of “For Sale.” The first few times I heard it I was waiting for Kendrick to say Now baby when I get you get you get you get you. This is the catchiest song on the album. The vibraphone throws a somber haze over the bouncing drums and basslines. Kendrick sits in the middle, darting to fill in the space left by the musicians. This song is incredibly open and full sounding at the same time. I love it.

Henry: This song does have the same basic changes as “For Sale,” but I think I like it more. I love the beat switch from the bossa rimshot feel into the classic motown groove, and Cee-Lo makes a rare and awesome appearance. Another example of Kendrick working perfectly with live instrumentation.

 

7. Untitled 07 | 2014-2016

Produced by Frank Dukes, Yung Exclusive, Swizz Beatz & Egypt Dean

Henry: The first beat on this track is probably the weakest on the tape, if only because it sounds like what every other big name rapper is using these days. Still, the way Kendrick is able to use that space is why he’s king right now. Funny thing is, Egypt Dean is Swizz Beatz’ five year old son, and he did the second section, which I think is way better. Love those drums. The head is the answer refrain is a good closer to this three-piece as well. I love when people include little studio session outtakes, and this one is classic.

Micah: Pimp! Pimp! Hooray! I agree with Henry here. The first part of this track is definitely half-baked and could have been cut from this batch of leftovers in my opinion. The middle bit of the track is much better, but isn’t fleshed out enough to stand on its own. The end of the track is essentially a fly on the wall listen into Kendrick’s process. This trilogy of fragments is interesting to hear for the die-hard Kendrick stan, but most certainly has the lowest replay value on the release.

 

8. Untitled 08 | 09.06.2014

Produced by DJ Khalil

Micah: This is the best song on the album. Wow I love this song. The live version has been in rotation since Kendrick’s band’s performance on the Fallon show. This is the most complete song on the entire album, and was most likely discarded from To Pimp a Butterfly because it wouldn’t have worked in sequence. I love the James Brown influenced call and response between Kendrick and the chorus. DJ Khalil rarely disappoints and this song is another testament of his production prowess. I can’t get enough of this one.

Henry: This track feels complete in a way that some of the other tracks on this tape don’t quite. K.Dot has proven time and time again that he’s capable of murdering the Drake & Future type of production (as found on Untitled 2 and 7,) but this George Clinton-esque groove is the most compelling direction his sound has taken for me. This is what I want rap music to sound like in 2016. P-Funk meets G-Funk meets K.Dot. Why so sad?

In Rotation: Untitled 01, Untitled 02, Untitled 03, Untitled 05, Untitled 06, Untitled 08


Henry Whittier-Ferguson & Micah Roehlkepartain