Has there ever been a time when the Internet didn’t get what it wanted?
If things had gone the way Kendrick Lamar saw them going a year ago, the bundle of eight “untitled, unmastered” songs that popped up on the Web late last week would have never seen the light of day.
The collection of unreleased songs — undone, but far from leftovers — pulls listeners right back into the same web of jazz-soaked, funk-drunk internal conflict and social commentary as Lamar’s platinum-selling/streaming, Grammy-hoarding sophomore album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” did a year ago.
As a whole, they paint the same pictures as the one he started when he took the stage as the final musical guest on “The Colbert Report” one year ago this month: hair twists, black leather jacket covering a black hoodie, hand in his pocket holding a flask, with saxophonist-producer Terrace Martin, singers Bilal and Anna Wise, and bassist Thundercat surrounding him like a constellation. His performance of “Alright” atop a burning police car at last summer’s BET Awards, and his stop at “The Tonight Show” to unveil another unheard gem, “Blue Faces,” were more brush strokes.
They were one-offs. The only way to see them was to either watch the shows or scour YouTube or Soundcloud for ripped versions. (There were plenty.)
But the way Lamar saw it, those songs were supposed to be unicorns.
In the run-up to the release of “Butterfly,” he stopped by Power 106’s “The Breakfast Club” and talked about the recording sessions that spanned two years.
“I probably did about 30 to 40 songs that we actually fought over in the studio,” he said. “Because a lot of those records was my favorite records. Sometimes it be like that. You may do something crazy and it just don’t end up [on the album] because it might not be as cohesive as you thought.”
The show’s host Angela Yee asked, “So what happens with those?”
He laughed and told her, “For my ears and my iPhone.”
There the songs could’ve stayed, like the decades of music Prince, according to lore, has stashed away in a bank vault. But the tipping point was Lamar’s gripping performance at the Grammys last month, which ended with an unheard verse set to dream-sequence horns and keys, and steeped in social commentary.
Lamar revealed to hip-hop hub 2DopeBoys that he had “a chamber of material from the album . . . that I’m in love with that I’ll still play and still perform that didn’t make the cut.”
And then, people stopped wanting moments and started wanting music. The demand on social media for Lamar’s label head, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, to issue an EP of all the unreleased songs grew so loud that even NBA star LeBron James couldn’t keep himself out of Tiffith’s mentions. Top Dawg teased at TDE’s 2016 release schedule. Last week he said he’d drop a surprise project from one of the roster’s artists.
The album’s eventual appearance was both inconspicuous and attention-grabbing, like a black suitcase left in the middle of an airport terminal.
What the Internet wants, the Internet gets. Not long ago, a bundle of unfinished songs from the recording sessions for Kanye West’s on-the-fly release “The Life of Pablo” surfaced on the Web. They were mumbling unmixed skeletons of unfinished ideas and unpolished soundscapes. But they were (and still are) a click away.
None of Lamar’s new songs have names, just “untitled” and the date they were presumably recorded, mostly 2014. But they are, by and large, fully formed. Certain lines (like a response to a diss from the talented but disengaged Jay Electronica on “untitled |2014-2016”) put timestamps on the album that show he went back to make sure it all threaded together.
In a way, it’s all as tightly woven as his Grammy-winning work, even if none of these cuts fit that album’s meticulous narrative. For fun, try to find a spot for “Untitled 03” in the sequencing of “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Justify keeping “Untitled 02” on the album, when “U” already drained listeners emotionally. (Sadly, sidelining “untitled 06,” a gem of a song with Cee-Lo Green, probably was a smart play, with Green facing a sexual battery case while Lamar was assembling the album.)
Even in its raw form, “untitled, unmastered” is a lot to unpack. But maybe it shouldn’t have been unpacked at all.
After all the praise rained down upon last year’s Colbert performance — Slate called it “powerful and thought-provoking”; Rolling Stone declared it “explosive” — Martin explained in a Complex.com interview what they’d had in mind with such songs.
“Remember when we were kids and you had to go buy a disposable camera?” Martin asked. “Even if you lost the pictures or the whole camera, you had those moments because you remembered those moments, and so you cherished those moments. We don’t have that no more. We can show you the moment from 20 years ago on Instagram. I think Kendrick wanted to give the kids a moment. Hip-hop doesn’t give kids moments no more. It’s just, ‘Here, the record’s out, buy it!’ He did that for us. Just for us to have a moment.”
Now, here, the record’s out. You can buy it. Even if it comes at the expense of more of those moments.
‘untitled, unmastered’Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.