NPR's Audie Cornish spoke with Frannie Kelley of NPR Music's podcast Microphone Check about Kendrick Lamar's untitled unmastered. You can hear their conversation at the audio link.
Hip-hop fans received a surprise Thursday night: an unexpectedly released project from Kendrick Lamar called untitled unmastered.
Each of untitled unmastered.'s eight tracks is — as the album's name headlines — untitled, followed by a date. If those dates (most of which fall between 2013 and 2014) are correct, it means they were recorded during the same period as Lamar's masterful To Pimp A Butterfly.
As of Friday morning, untitled unmastered. was available across many music platforms, including Spotify, iTunes and Tidal.
When this music made its way online last night, some news outlets breathlessly hailed it as the leak of a "surprise new album" featuring "eight new songs."
That's not quite right, though. The project's title suggests a certain fluidity and work-in-progress liminality, and its cover is an unadorned, almost industrial green field. It's a strategy that nods to the lifting-the-veil feel behind Kanye West's The Life of Pablo.
A lot of this material will be familiar to attentive listeners; as NME points out, Lamar has already performed certain passages from this project quite publicly already, including on TV performances on shows like The Colbert Report and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. And the sprawling, eight-minute "untitled 07" is partly a reworking — or rough, improvised version — of material that appears earlier on untitled unmastered.
There were hints that something was in the works earlier this week already, starting with a not-so-mysterious Instagram post on Wednesday from Anthony Tiffith — the CEO of Lamar's label, Top Dawg Entertainment — which Lamar promptly retweeted.
All of the signs in untitled unmastered. point to this release as a snapshot of Lamar's creative process, but given the intensity with which his work is received, and that surprise full-album drops have become almost expected in the marketplace, many fans may interpret this project as a full artistic statement.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Last night hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar dropped an unexpected project. It's called "Untitled Unmastered," and right now you're listening to track number five.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNTITLED 05")
KENDRICK LAMAR: (Rapping) I got 100 on my dash, got 200 in my trunk. Name in the grab bags, put my Bible in the trunk. Taaka vodka on the top of my binocular, I'm drunk.
CORNISH: Fans of Kendrick might recognize some of the songs on here. They've been performed in public before. And for the most part, it's seems like the so-called surprise album is a work in progress. Joining us now to talk about this is Frannie Kelley of the NPR podcast Microphone Check.
Welcome back, Frannie.
FRANNIE KELLEY, BYLINE: Thank you very much.
CORNISH: Now, it seems like surprise albums are pretty commonplace (laughter) these days. Was this one actually a surprise, and can we really call it an album?
KELLEY: I think that the word unexpected you used is right. We didn't have a date for this. I personally anticipated doing other work today, but...
KELLEY: ...Yeah, it had been teased in a lot of different ways, in a lot of different platforms. There were rumors. There was stuff happening on Twitter, most prominently by LeBron James. So we did feel that this was imminent but we didn't know exactly what it was going to contain and we didn't know, you know, what else was going to be going on the world when we received it.
CORNISH: And we should mention - full disclosure - your co-host on the podcast, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, actually worked on one of the tracks on this new project. Tell us a little bit about these songs. I don't know if they're - how different they are from the music that was on "To Pimp A Butterfly," that, you know, really big album.
KELLEY: Yeah. So with the caveat that I've barely been able to listen to this album yet - we're all in that position, and in some ways it makes it critic-proof. But what I noticed right away was that in the way that "To Pimp A Butterfly" felt very funk heavy, this is, like, the rap growth from funk. It felt much more like, hip-hop, drums. The groove was a little bit slower and deeper, which I think I really - you know, it's just so hard to say, to pick apart his message and to get into what he's, like, trying communicate lyrically, but it feels a little bit more in the moment - not that he didn't write it, but it does feel less written.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNTITLED 07")
LAMAR: (Rapping) Love won't get you high as this. Drugs won't get you high as this. Fame won't get you high as this. Chains won't get you high as this. Juice won't get you high as this. Crew won't get you high as this. Hate won't get you high as this. Levitate, levitate, levitate, levitate.
CORNISH: You know, Frannie, it's interesting because he really brings a lot of theater and drama to the music, and this sounds like it has that as well.
KELLEY: Yeah, I mean, I think that he's the single best performer that we have in music right now, and I think that this album actually really shows that. Some of the songs were written explicitly to be performed on the late-night TV shows like "Colbert" and "Fallon," and so they were written, you know, in the space of a week. And they were also written by the band that performed them, like, on those actual shows, and they've released the versions with those performers making the music. So yeah, there's - it does feel in some ways more improvisational but well within the grounding of these, like, super, super trained musicians and their genius and creativity.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNTITLED 02")
LAMAR: (Rapping) I'm sick and tired of being tired. I can't pick a side. The Gemini prophesize if we living. I promise Momma not to feel no lie. Seeing black dirt on burgundy...
CORNISH: Frannie Kelley is the co-host of NPR's hip-hop podcast Microphone Check.
Frannie, thanks so much.
KELLEY: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNTITLED 02")
LAMAR: (Rapping) Get God on the phone. Said it won't be long. I see [expletive]. I see styrofoams. My hood going brazy. Where did we go wrong? I see [expletive]. I see styrofoams... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.