Since the days of the Grateful Dead and the gramophone, recorded music and the way that we listen to it have shifted immensely in both sound and scope. The past two decades in particular saw the most upheaval in means of consumption — CDs dying out in favor of the instant availability of iTunes, Spotify and other streaming services rising in response to the extra-legal ease of downloading music afforded by torrenting sites like The Pirate Bay. As formats of recorded music have changed, music itself has changed in response.
On Kid A, Radiohead played with the CD as a form of media, hiding an extra outro to end the album nearly four minutes after the proper ending of “Motion Picture Soundtrack.” With the release of In Rainbows, they subverted the record industry with pay-what-you-want immediacy, and since then artists have gone on to experiment with the Internet as a means of instant dissemination. Nowhere is this more apparent in 2016 than on Kanye West’s ever-changing The Life of Pablo (TLOP). Albeit, Kendrick Lamar’s surprise release of untitled unmastered. follows in the same vein, seeking to focus a fickle audience’s attention in an age when an artist’s newest release seems dated in the public conscience only months after its release.
Coming off from the overwhelming success of last year’s To Pimp a Butterfly and following a string of impressive late night performances featuring songs not on the record, rumors began to rumble and so the release of untitled unmastered. isn’t entirely out of the blue, but makes perfect sense since at the peak of Yeezy season, the only thing that can tear me away from my six versions of “Wolves” is a new Kendrick record. In this regard, however, TLOP and untitled unmastered. represent two differing approaches to the remaining relevant. On the former, Kanye fine tunes and tweaks, adding a line here or turning up the bass there, allowing a glimpse of a genius at work; while on the latter, Kendrick treats us to a collection of his leftovers in order to remind us just how hungry we are for more of the finished product.
From the outset of untitled unmastered. and throughout, it is clear that these songs represent the scraps from the cutting floor of To Pimp a Butterfly, and accordingly the record pales in comparison to its predecessor in almost every regard but I argue that this is exactly what its supposed to do. Each track in some way did not measure up to Kendrick Lamar quality check and in some cases its evident why, the effect of which evinces the level of skill and discernment with which the artist creates. For example, “untitled 08” is a good song in its own right — a bouncy funk beat with a catchy chorus, but from comparison to “King Kunta,” another song featuring a bouncy funk beat with a catchy chorus, its clear which one accomplishes the task to a higher degree.
By releasing what essentially amounts to a tape of demos Kendrick does not cheapen his credibility as a songwriter, but rather allows for a greater intimacy with fans and insight into his creative process, building hype through a more personal connection than the traditional record release. Although the same deeper themes of social oppression and materialism appear, untitled umastered. does not aim for their exploration beyond To Pimp a Butterfly, but instead succeeds in increasing our anticipation of the next time that Kendrick will address them for us.