When is a compilation of one-off tracks and previously unreleased material more than just bait for superfans and completists? When the artist releasing it is exceeding himself so consistently that he seems about to hit escape velocity, for one. That’s the case with Untitled Unmastered, which Kendrick Lamar dropped with no warning late Thursday night. As a comp, the new album predictably lacks the thoughtful cohesion of the seismic, sprawling full-lengths Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and To Pimp a Butterfly. Lamar occupies such an exalted position in pop culture that his music can take on new life once it’s in the public’s hands (consider how Black Lives Matter protestors have adoped “Alright”), and three of the eight songs on Untitled Unmastered had seen the light of day before last week—he performed “Untitled 03” on the final Colbert Report in 2014, part of “Untitled 02” on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon in January, and a fraction of “Untitled 05” during this year’s Grammys. Though the new album seems to have scooped up scattered cuts like a fishing net, the music has the same fierce sense of necessity that Lamar instills in his best material.
It’s hard to pick a favorite “Untitled” after just a few days—I’m still getting settled with the album. While I love the way “Untitled 05” wrestles with the karmic weight of its protagonist’s horrific crime, the moody “Untitled 02” currently has my attention, which is why I’ve picked it as today’s 12 O’Clock Track. The song’s low-gurgling synths, pitter-pattering piano, quietly clattering percussion, and sweltering, snakelike saxophone all partake of the spirit and sound of To Pimp a Butterfly, as does Lamar’s performance. He raps about the many routes he could take at this point in his career, revealing some of the obligation and responsibility he feels to his public—not just to the people in his life or to those still struggling to get by in Compton, but also to every person who shares his color of skin.
That sense of responsibility pressed down so heavily it almost felt claustrophobic on To Pimp a Butterfly, and that helped give the album its definition and vitality. When he raps about his place in the greater culture on “Untitled 02,” his burden feels less Sisyphean. Lamar hardly sounds carefree, but he seems fueled by positive possibilities that once felt out of reach.