Can I keep it 100? Maybe even 1,000? Perhaphs even a googleplex?
It's Thursday night. I just put my kids to bed. I just started watching Better Call Saul last weekend, I was planning on knocking out an episode of that and maybe actually sleeping more than six hours for once. And then Kendrick Lamar fucked up my night with this untitled unmastered album. I might have been able to just listen and enjoy like a fan, but then the people began calling for a 1-Listen Review, and I can't deny the will of the people.
I'm not the hero you need, want or deserve, but I'm the hero you're stuck with because I invented the 1-Listen review, so let's open this laptop, pour this drink, put on my good headphones and get going.
A bit of background before we really crack this thing open like a 24-pack of Natural Ice at a frat party. First, earlier this week TDE announced that it would be dropping a surprise album soon, and frankly I don't think anyone even dared to dream it'd be a Kendrick project. Maybe a new album from one of their new John Doe artists, maybe, just maybe, ScHoolboy's album ahead of schedule, but Kendrick? That's like asking your parents for $1 more in allowance each week and them saying, "You know what, fuck an allowance. Let's just go buy you that brand new bike right now." While specific details on the album are scarce, and the very nature of its title, album art and song titles (or lack thereof) exude vagueness, we can assume by the dates attached to each song title that these are joints recorded around the creation of To Pimp a Butterfly but that didn't make the final cut because of sample clearance issues, they didn't fit the album sequencing or because they just weren't good enough.
And for those of you new to the 1 Listen Review rules, this will be a gut reaction listen for the first time, no pausing or rewinding, no editing, no rewriting. Just stream of consciousness reactions that try to capture the moment. We'll be back later with a follow-up review that attempts to break down the meaning and importance of the album once we've had time to marinate on it. For a deeper explanation of 1 Listen reviews, click here.
And with that, let's get rolling.
1. "untitled 01 l 08.19.2014."
Right off the bat we got some deep-voiced dude on the intro, this is like porn when the guy just won't shut the fuck up, like anybody pressed play on this Abella Anderson video to hear a dude talk - or so I've been told. OK, thankfully that's over and now we've got some Kendrick rhymes. Coming right out of the gate with some en fuego bars. It's dope, but gut instinct, it sounds like a mixtape cut if Kendrick wasn't light years beyond still doing mixtape cuts. No hook, no bridge, just straight rhymes. This is that song Kendrick's going to invite a fan onstage to rap to in order to prove they're a real fan. That was fast, already onto the next...
2. "untitled 02 l 06.23.2014."
Pimp pimp hooray, ho, hey, ho, hey. Now this sounds exactly like something off TPAB, flute lines, horn stabs, Kendrick on some of that woozy flow. Oooohhhh...when that bass hits along with those hi-hats??? K. Dot with some of that quasi-singing, goddamn. This is dope, if it had made the album you know "Get God on the phone!" would have become an instant catchphrase. I don't think I've ever really heard Kendrick sing like this, the way he cuts each word out at the end has so much style. "I've done a lot of dumb shit in my past" - looks like it's time to revisit Yoh's article about Kendrick potentially being a murderer. Is there someone I can pay to master this so I can truly bang the fuck out of it? What's Ali's PayPal? This last section, doesn't that sound like a Drake flow? Gonna go back to this one, but I can see why it didn't make the album, it doesn't really add up to anything bigger.
3. "untitled 03 l 05.28.2013."
Change of pace from the last song, this one's more straight up instrumental, has some real bounce. Definitely reminds me of some Roots from like six years ago. That girl with the "What did he say?" vocal hit is straight out of TPAB, who was that again? Oh, I get it, we're working through every race and ethnicity in each section, very clever concept. Man, the groove on this has my head nodding like a bobblehead doll with a seizure disorder. Another short and sweet one, wish this had been fleshed out into a full song, but can't ask for a finished product on an album titled "untitled unmastered."
4. "untitled 04 l 08.14.2014."
Some a capella singing off the jump, is this SZA singing the vocals? I'm pretty sure it is. That whisper thing Kendrick's doing is kind of crazy. Wait, did she just sing, "Head is the future"? That can't be right - or is my mind in the gutter? Guess it is with those porn references I was making. Anyway, super sparse, just a stuttering guitar line and the occasional bass hit - oh, here comes a spaceship synth line. Man, if people thought the music that made TPAB was too "weird" their brains would melt ouf of their nose holes if they heard this. It sounds like a sonic Salvador Dali painting.
5. "untitled 05 l 09.21.2014."
Ooooohhhhh....I can't say for sure, but something about that bass line and these drums scream Thundercat and Flying Lotus. It's a safe bet. Just in case you thought live instrumentals couldn't bang, listen to this shit. Yo, who is that girl singing? Man, I'll probably feel stupid later, but I don't even have a guess. She sounds great. Almost two minutes in and we still haven't heard Kendrick yet - oh, there he is, except he's quasi-singing. OH FUCK NEVERMIND NOW HE'S RAPPING AND IT SOUNDS LIKE RUNNING FROM THE POLICE WHEN YOU KNOW THEY'RE NOT GONNA CATCH YOU. This one's all over the place, but in a good way. He really was on some other-other shit recording TPAB. French Montana can shut his pie hole. Goddamnit, now another dude's rapping and I can't place him either. Fuck, I hate not knowing, but this is some real 1 Listen shit. Finally, now I know that's Jay Rock on the third verse trading bars with K. Dot. It really makes me realize again that there wasn't a single other TDE rapper on TPAB. And we're done.
Note: The internet figured out that the other rapper is TDE's own Punch.
6. "untitled 06 l 06.30.2014."
A real swing drum line (no Nick Cannon), man, this has some real Brazilian-type flavor. I haven't ever heard Kendrick quite like this. TPAB is jazz colored with gangster rap, but this is just straight up jazz. Oh, and Cee-Lo singing a hook because of course he is. I miss Cee-Lo (the good Cee-Lo). Maybe I'm just not cultured enough, but this isn't grabbing me. Hard to judge an album of leftover joints like I would an "actual" album though...is that a foreign language at the end or gibberish? Probably won't be coming back to this one.
7. "untitled 07 l 2014 - 2016"
Those woozy synths lines are...oh goddamn, and now those drums kicked in? Drugs won't get me as high as this. YES LAWD. SWEET JESUS TAKE ME NOW I'M READY. More of this please, I'm back, resurrected from track 6 - I'm floating. This sounds more like it could have been a GKMC leftover than TPAB. Funny, this is exactly the kind of song all the people who didn't like TPAB said they wanted, and exactly the kind of song Kendrick doubters would have used as evidence that he's not a great rapper...wait...beat switch. Now it sounds like an orphan English kid singing about being from Compton - and a whole different beat.
Goddamn, this bass is about to break myheadphones. If you ever wondered what actually mastering an album does, it prevents the bass from being too loud like this. And Kendrick's absolutely merking this verse. Only halfway done with the song, another beat switch has to be coming...here it is. Kendrick is singing over a guitar, this is some shit that was like recorded in the dressing room, just him messing around. Damn, he's singing "head is the future" again. Guess that really was a line he was using on the album. Kendrick getting his best D'Angelo impression on. Interesting, but going to be hard to listen to it repeatedly. I'll take the first half of this song on repeat into infinity though please. Thank you.
Note: The word on the interwebs is that Swizz Beatz 5-year-old son helped produce this song and, unlike his daddy, he didn't ruin the beat with ad-libs.
8. "untitled 08 l 09.06.2014."
Some real funk, this is that atomic dog, that dirty dog. Call up George Clinton, we need him on another song. This might be the song that most sounds like the rest of TPAB so far. Not in style, but these lyrics remind me of "All Falls Down," he's talking to women fighting between chasing cash, their dreams, and dreams of cash. Ooh, and the tempo's picking up towards the end here. This is the kind of song I'd really have to listen to at least a few times before I felt like I understood. That synth-bass line is some real MJ shit. And just like that, we've come to the end of the road (cue the Boyz II Men).
These 1 Listen reviews are all about my initial gut reaction, and my initial gut reaction says something I feel like a lot of people are going to consider heresy - I kind of wish I hadn't heard this project. What I've come to love about Kendrick, and TDE, is that every move feels deliberate, planned, sometimes years in advance. We never get loose songs, mixtapes, freestyles, we only hear the music Kendrick considers to be the most absolute example of his artistic vision, and these unfinished tracks diminish some of that mythical-power. When I heard some of these songs in performances on Fallon, Colbert and the GRAMMYs I said I wanted them in my iTunes, but now that I have them, I'm not so sure. Maybe they were more powerful existing as these single, live moments.
Really though, whatever. I'm not going to overthink an untitled and unmastered project - maybe it's best to just think of it as a director's cut of TPAB and be grateful. Life won't get me high like this here, not without Kendrick's music in it. Let's all just relax and levitate, levitate, leviate.
By Nathan S, the managing editor of DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.