[2016’s coming to an end, and it has yielded an impressive and bountiful musical harvest, amidst all the losses and tragedies. Thanks to the input of my friends and other respondents in a Google Drive poll I made, I will be writing about the albums the critics loved and that my friends asked for, as well as a few that flew under everyone’s radar except mine.]
(Top Dawg Entertainment, 2016)
What’s this album about?
I’ll start off this series with the most popular entry (as of writing): Kendrick Lamar’s Untitled Unmastered. This compilation collects demos and outtakes taken from sessions for To Pimp a Butterfly, and was apparently kept secret by its creators for a few months (according to Anna Wise) until it was released with the intervention of LeBron James to Top Dawg Entertainment’s Anthony Tiffith. As the name suggests, the album’s eight tracks remain untitled and only have as identifiers their recording dates, putting them between 2013 at their earliest and 2016 for parts of one. Most of these songs tread similar thematic ground as Butterfly, delving into Kendrick’s reflections on fame, success and their temptations, as well as its sonic signature–a blend of minor-key funk and freewheeling jazz evoking his chaotic, conflicted headspace.
What did the critics think?
Many critics loved this album, seeing that it doesn’t stray too far from the tree its branches have been pruned from. It’s surprising how critics took to an album of demos and outtakes, which according to Kendrick Lamar weren’t released either due to sample clearances or missed deadlines, subsequently pared of production that made To Pimp a Butterfly so sonically compelling. Andy Kellman of AllMusic reflects this sentiment, calling untitled unmastered: “(artfully) artless in presentation… yet it’s almost as lyrically and musically rich as To Pimp a Butterfly.”
What really makes Untitled different from most other popular albums is that it’s a compilation of outtakes and demos–the preliminary studies and sketches made by artists as they create the finished works you hear on record (or radio or Spotify). Untitled goes further, presented with little immediate indication of its original context, whether through song titles or even album artwork. In a review for Pitchfork, kris ex writes, “Its author tempts deeper reading, but his choices and the lack of entry points… leaving nothing to deal with but the music,” making it a more immediate, in-your-face listen than his previous albums. Untitled definitely does not share the same conceptual cohesion as To Pimp a Butterfly or even the semi-autobiographical narrative of good kid, m.A.A.d city. For that, The AV Club’s Evan Rytlewski seems to praise untitled as “never feeling nearly so heavy as its predecessor,” yet the absence of those threads that made Lamar’s first two major albums make Untitled lack the same gripping gravitas that make them such compelling listening experiences. For that, Rytlewski continues, “Untitled just asks to be enjoyed….,” as “a bonus disc that improbably holds up as an essential album in its own right.”
As compelling it is to listen and imagine To Pimp a Butterfly supplemented with these songs–already therein lies a problem with albums like these: the amount of enjoyment listeners can get from these albums comes from their familiarity with To Pimp a Butterfly. One of my favorite tracks, “Untitled 06,” got that recognition not only for its killer CeeLo Green verses, but for its resemblance to Butterfly‘s“For Sale? (Interlude),” juxtaposing a heavenly bassline and angelic Rhodes keys with verses that put Kendrick in the desert for 40 days. Through its similar lyrical themes and aural fingerprints, Untitled Unmastered “completes the sentence of To Pimp a Butterfly,” in the words of album bassist Thundercat. Why did the Beatles’ Anthology compilations sell so well back in the 1990s? People had 40 years to listen deep and pore into their mysteries. As big as Kendrick Lamar is these days, I would still recommend for this set for existing enthusiasts. Yet with To Pimp a Butterfly topping many best of 2015 lists, I’m not sure who I would have to reserve recommending Untitled from.
Do you have any favorite releases from 2016 that I should take a look at? If you have any suggestions, please leave a comment or vote on my Google poll here, where you can pick and suggest albums for me to listen and write about. I also appreciate any feedback or responses!