Sunday, March 6, 2016

Unraveling 'untitled unmastered'

In the wee hours of Friday, shortly after midnight, Kendrick Lamar dropped a new surprise album entitled 'untitled unmastered.' Along with this enigmatic title came an enigmatic title image:

Considering all of the hand wringing and fussing Kanye recently made over his new album, 'untitled unmastered' feels like the antithesis of 'The Life of Pablo' in its low-profile release--for example, there is no public record of him consorting with a Kardashian for help with its name. Perhaps Kendrick was recently inspired to pull a Beyoncé (aka drop an album out of nowhere with little warning) while hanging out with Bey and Jay at basketball, although in fairness, 'To Pimp A Butterfly' was also dropped out of nowhere last year:

This really happened
Early commentary on this album has pointed out that it may be closer to a series of sketches than a completed product; certainly the choice of the word 'unmastered' in the album's name suggests this interpretation. However, in thinking over what this album presents, I am struck by the complexities that Kendrick has incorporated into it solely based on these naming conventions alone. An untitled piece of art is not necessarily an incomplete one.

Wassily Kandinsky's 1916 untitled painting

What an unmastered work is remains unclear, at least in this context.

The track names are equally nebulous. Rather than providing specific titles, there are only dates, suggesting that these are works that were abandoned at some point. But what point? What do these dates represent? Start dates, end dates, abandoned dates, studio session dates? This question of dates is not trivial. For example, some of the material in these songs has been heard before on late-night appearances and in other contexts and these dates don't match those in the title for the track. Instead of a specific date, as most the tracks have, 'untitled 7' dates from 2014-2016 and incorporates a range of different recordings that are abruptly connected. Thus this track spans a broad swath of time, beginning with a 'song' that might otherwise be called 'Levitate' (in the vein of 'Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe' from Kendrick's first major album, 'Good Kid, M.A.A.D City') and ending with what sounds like an improvised jam session with friends. Abrupt shifts during a track are not unusual for Kendrick as they abound on 'To Pimp A Butterfly,' but here they reveal that while what we're hearing may be 'unmastered,' it is not unedited. At one point during the start of the jam session, Kendrick states, 'This is a fifteen-minute song!' The whole track is only 8:16, and at that point we are already five minutes in. Consequently, the listener is made acutely aware that either there were cuts or that this was not really a fifteen-minute song. Either way, what is presented to us on 'untitled unmastered' should not be accepted necessarily at face value.

I have two possible interpretations of 'unmastered' for this album. The first is that these are tracks that predate 'To Pimp A Butterfly' and he is suggesting that it is that album which is masterful. Indeed, the tone and language here is somewhat out of place with that on 'To Pimp A Butterfly,' whose trajectory explores many different nuances of controversial terms (and almost entirely eschews the word 'bitch'). So perhaps Kendrick did undergo a change in his artistic outlook between 'Good Kid, M.A.A.D City' and we are seeing its evolution here; these tracks, then, are from before he 'mastered' his art. Alternatively, perhaps these songs simply didn't fit the overall narrative. The albums that bookend these tracks (if the dates on 'untitled unmastered' are accurate) both, ostensibly, had a plot--the plot of 'Good Kid, M.A.A.D City' is outlined more clearly, but there is definitely one on 'To Pimp A Butterfly' as well. These tracks could be leftovers that were not quite right for those albums and didn't fit with the overall structure.

And yet, even on 'untitled unmastered,' Kendrick has a linking device with a rallying cry 'Pimp pimp, hooray' that appears between various songs and is the last sound on the album. So although these may be 'unfinished' or 'unmastered' tracks, in the end, Kendrick presents a 'master' copy that links together what has come before, and what was originally a simple title proves to be far more complex.

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