“untitled unmastered.” — The Album We Need To Rewind Right About Now (Guest Post by Evan Reynolds)
Tim Wise, an American anti-racism writer and activist, recently went to Twitter to address the Democrats’ latest failures in painting Donald Trump as the racist demagogue he is, claiming “if the Dems blow this election it will not be because they were ‘too far left on policy’ or because they ‘weren’t left enough.’ It will have little to do with policy at all.”
Wise worked as Assistant Director on the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism and Nazism, the largest political action committee. Having been founded for the purpose of defeating the Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke who was running for U.S. Senate in 1990 and Governor of Louisiana in 1991 at the time, the parallels between Duke and Trump are more than evident. He insists “If anything, I would say crafting an argument that this is an existential crisis for the nation — and making it about Trump’s bigotry and who we want to be as a country, would be far more effective in inspiring [people] to make up their minds…”
Wise asserts “[Trump] is a white nationalist. He is an authoritarian. He and his cult are a threat to the future of the nation and world because of their hatreds. His movement betrays the country’s promise. THAT is the message that will drive [voter] turnout [enough to defeat him in the 2020 election].” I think Wise brings up an interesting point that, in essence, the election really should be about who we are as people. Because if we “normalize” Trump’s behavior, what does that say about humanity itself?
Thank God for Kendrick Lamar and his 2016 surprise album untitled unmastered. We need to listen to it now more than ever if we are to remember what humanity is, and how that drastically pales in comparison from Trump’s vision of America.
Released as Top Dawg Entertainment’s version of Prince’s Black Album filled with surprise, leftover tracks from Lamar’s 2015 To Pimp A Butterfly studio sessions, untitled unmastered. was intended to fall out of the sky when listeners least expected. However, this caused the album to be quickly overlooked in anticipation for Kendrick’s “real” successor to TPAB which would eventually manifest into DAMN. in 2017.
So, ‘Is untitled unmastered. even really an album?’ many pondered upon its release. Or was it merely a stopgap with little message other than being a treat to eager fans impatiently awaiting new music. Most see it through the lens of the latter, a compilation of Kendrick’s throwaways and yet at the same time praise it in claiming it’s better than most rappers’ entire musical catalog.
With just a first glance at the album cover, a plain, hazy green with only the album title in small, typewriter font hidden in the upper left corner, the album design certainly doesn’t hold up to let alone a mixtape. The tracklist looks like a collection of files from a hard drive dump. You only get what’s necessary: the name “untitled” followed by the date the song was conceivably produced. And the title, untitled unmastered., is certainly about as bland as it gets.
But in minimalism and ambiguity, there is art. And where there is art, lies humanity at its core. The album cover in fact is heavily inspired by the works of abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. Rothko painted large canvases with blocks of color, often only one or two of various shades with no visible frame. The effect caused colors to float beyond the medium and into the viewers’ consciousness. Rothko believed his works were a powerful way to communicate varying human emotions, thereby speaking for themselves. He called his works “untitled” just like the track names in untitled unmastered., which also removed his artistic impression or ego on the work and left it up to the viewers’ interpretations and emotions.
With this insight, it becomes more clear what untitled unmastered. really is. And with the album’s release between the tail end of Barack Obama’s presidency and at the front end of Trump’s growing popularity and haunting rise in politics, it becomes obvious.
untitled unmastered. is less an album or collection of demo tracks and more akin to the biblical Book of Revelation in hip hop form. It’s a prophetic warning to America and of the coming loss of humanity due to greed and other forms of self-destruction. Indeed, the first track, “Untitled 1”, opens with a creepy voice that’s also so frighteningly deep it could be demonic. The voice coerces a “little lamb” sexually until Kendrick suddenly screams “the ground is shaking”, “planes [are] falling out of the sky”, and “backpedaling Christians [are] settling for forgiveness.” It’s a shocking and unsettling portent.
The next track, “Untitled 02” has Kendrick begging to “Get God on the phone” over a thick, pounding trap beat with a trumpet that buzzes in and out like a siren before the track breaks the fourth wall. It’s at this point listeners suddenly hear a live, in-studio lo-fi snippet of Kendrick shouting for someone to get on the drums.
The creative effect of adding the lo-fi studio snippet at the end of the track separates ‘Kendrick the rapper’ from ‘the real Kendrick’, and this mimics the theory of separation between artist and artwork Rothko believed was necessary in order to elicit raw emotion. Thus in untitled unmastered., the artist’s ego is occasionally removed from the art throughout the album with the snippets so listeners can empathize and see the human side of Kendrick. In this way, Kendrick can spit wisdom with the authority of a sage on “Untitled 08” when talking about how people are chasing “fast money” rather than working to earn it.
At other times he can humble himself like at the end of the braggadocious yet inspirational “Untitled 07”, in which a lo-fi snippet illustrates Kendrick laughing with musicians in the studio as he crafts the early version of the refrain in “Untitled 4.” The snippet is reminiscent of people gathering around a campfire. A jovial Kendrick sings and entertains the studio while another musician strums along with him on a lone guitar. Additionally, the fact that all the snippets were recorded long before the album’s release, particularly during the TPAB sessions, their presence creates a sense of nostalgia in juxtaposition with the music on the album, forcing listeners to look back on “what was” or “how things used to be” in a more organic and authentic setting.
In a metaphorical sense, it’s as if Kendrick is trying to tell listeners with such intimacy and minimalism, that basic human connection keeps us grounded and reminds us of what’s important in life. He’s saying “Don’t forget we’re all the same,” which in other words also means, you don’t need a whole lot to be happy. On the other hand, those that worship “things” and criticize others for not having “things” will end up hypnotized by groupthink corruption, mindlessly repeating the album’s motif chant “pimp pimp hooray.” In Kendrick’s case, those hypnotized likely include record label executives who continue to exploit their artists.
The sarcastic chant serves as an ominous reminder of how people can be brainwashed by society’s celebration of money, materialism, and debauchery. Kendrick suggests true happiness and insight comes from being surrounded by people who love and support you. That’s real. This idea is linked to the “untitled 4” refrain: “Head is the answer, head is the future.” You have to use your “head”, a metonym presumably for education, enlightenment, and the process of self-actualization, in order to grow and get out of America’s broken system.
It’s a comical yet interesting way of explaining how we can flip “pimping” and the sexual imagery of getting screwed by society into an implement for building each other up and putting power back into our own hands. And yet, Kendrick ends the album with the “pimp pimp hooray” chant, which leaves us with unpleasant ambiguity. Perhaps he’s suggesting the system and groupthink forces are cyclical and remain in place despite his preaching. Or maybe the chant serves as one last warning of our inevitable fate if his message falls on deaf ears.
In 35 minutes, untitled unmastered. gives us Kendrick the Prophet, with each track serving as one of his “visions.” The unmastered production also makes it feel urgent, like uncovered survival tapes from the apocalypse. At its worst, it may ‘feel’ unfinished, but the intent was to illustrate how we are also “unfinished” in our own lives as we grow and mature. Flipping the title to untitled “Titled Mastered” unveils a deeper concept that manufactured “things” are finished, fixed, and controlled, only deteriorating and losing relevance with time. Conversely, the “unmastered” and “untitled” soul is free to be ever-evolving and eternal.
The album, therefore, reflects on the possibilities of the goodness of our humanity, while also illuminating the darkness its capable of if we lose sight of what matters. Hatred and white nationalism, however, can’t consume a mind that is educated through self-reflection and compassion. As TDE president Terrence “Punch” Henderson states on “Untitled 5”, “Perception is key, so I am King,” not Trump.