Give It A Spin: Kendrick Lamar’s UNTITLED UNMASTERED (and other notes on the creative process)

When news of new music from one of my favorite artists falls out of the sky and into my Twitter feed I move as quickly as possible toward listening to said music.

In this case, LeBron James tipped everyone off when he tweeted at the CEO of Top Dawg Entertainment to release Kendrick Lamar’s “untitled” tracks after Kendrick’s stunning performance at the Grammy’s — preceded by similarly unique but less grandiose performances on
The Tonight Show and for the first time back in 2014 as the final musical guest on The Colbert Report.

So we knew that some untitled tracks were on a hard drive somewhere, we just didn’t know when (or if) they would available to the masses. Ironically, I happened to be out for some rare Thursdaying the night the otherwise disparate and generally desolate “untitled” tracks that make up untitled unmastered. began to hit the Internet.

kdotuntitled

After successfully scrambling me and the small crew I was with started at the top with “untitled 01” where the first lyrics immediately let us know this wouldn’t be ideal for a casual group listening experience. I’ve given the 8 “untitled” tracks more than a few spins since then and with time they are less jarring, just like To Pimp A Butterfly, but there isn’t much to say about them beyond their general goodness. They’re useful in the background while writing or working on something at the very least.

For me, then as now, these “untitled” tracks are reminiscent of and are much more interesting as short story manuscripts, windows into Kendrick Lamar’s creative process which, especially given that these are the remnants of the best album of the previous year, underscores the sense that these untitled, unmastered tracks warrant only so much scrutiny.

Still, I have favorites. Let’s start with “untitled 02” because: “Pimp-Pimp, Hooray!”, the beat switch-up at 2:20 where Cornrow Kenny finds his flow and every one of the subsequent bars, and of course “Get Top on the phoooone”. Then “untitled 07” which Kendrick chopped up and released as a single the other day branded “levitate”… “levitate, levitate, levitate, levitate” (had to). Thirdly, I’ve got a lot of love for the bossa nova joint featuring CeeLo that appears on “untitled 06”; it’s a lowkey good sunny day chill song and sounds the most polished.

Anyway, we live in such interesting times where artists are increasingly open and directly accessible in more ways that ever. That Kendrick Lamar decided to explore his “untitled” tracks, work usually left on the cutting room floor for other artists, via televised live performances, and was able to push the creative upper limits of the performances themselves through the tracks is next level. To collect those tracks and parlay them into a No. 1 album is nothing short of amazing.

kwest

But getting back to social media, Twitter specifically, through it just last month Kanye West made the release of The Life of Pablo just as big as the album itself a few creative fits at a time. The hysteria began back in late January when Kanye tweeted a photo of a tracklist for what he was then calling the best album of all time, naturally.

He continued to share periodic updates and increasingly graffitied tracklists, then presented to the world, alongside his Yeezy Season 3 fashion lineup at Madison Square Garden, an early version of what we thought at the time would be a finished product. After the show Kanye continued to tweet about getting it done and songs leaked around the Internet so much that it didn’t feel like an album was coming out even during that weekend. I watched the fashion show way more than I wanted just to try and hear the music.

The next night after the fashion show was Saturday Night Live where “Ultralight Beam” was performed for the first time with The Dream, Chance the Rapper, Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin, and a full choir in tow. Immediately following that performance Kanye spazed and said TLOP was available on Tidal, except it wasn’t quite… and even when it dropped on February 14th there then became the open question of whether or not the album, even now, was/is finished.

It was/is the most frustrating rollout in music history, but it’s also fascinating. Kanye continues to tell us how he really feels and tease updates to TLOP — not to mention teasing a future album with the working title Turbo Grafx 16, despite the fact that this current album isn’t necessarily finished, even though it has officially been “released”. Over the last month Kanye has picked up a few million new followers, putting him over 20 million, and he actually updated TLOP on Tidal (to which I am reluctantly still subscribed for this reason) last week. But enough about that now as a full consideration of the album is a blog post for another day (that I keep putting off, sorry, but stay tuned).

torochaz

Another of my favorite albums from 2015 is Chaz Bundick’s/Toro Y Moi’s What For? Earlier this month Bundick posted a short documentary on Vimeo titled Chaz: In Parts, which details the development of one of the standout tracks from What For?, “The Flight”. Painfully hip but nostalgically enriching VHS tape recording quality aside, having watching it I appreciate the artist and the music (and the apartment and the tools and the crew and the importance of the jam session) more than I thought possible.

Perhaps coincidentally, a few months after What For? Toro Y Moi dropped a collection of previously unreleased, worked on over the last few years, rough around the edges tracks titled Samantha via his Dropbox as if he were old friends with the whole Internet. It didn’t go No. 1, but it too is a good listen in that you get a sense of the struggle to find good songs with wide appeal, you gain an appreciation for finished products. It’s also excellent in the background or walking around and even samples The Notebook on a track.

These windows into the creative process have been around in one way or another for some time now and can be invaluable for understanding or mimicking a style or reproducing a flavor. Literary magazine The Paris Review’s “The Art of Fiction” interview series is essential for writers and readers alike; watching a chef forage, prep, and cook a sensational meal as on Netflix’s Chef’s Table can change your approach to food; and now it’s good to see musicians out here giving fans more insight as to how the musical sauce is made. NPR’s Song Exploder podcast (where artists deconstruct a song of theirs) has become quite popular, and Mass Appeal’s Rhythm Roulette series (where producers make a song from three random records) is pretty neat too. Seek this stuff out; there’s much to learn however insightful, interesting, or just funny it may be.

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