Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly wasn’t just the most critically (and presidentially!) adored album of 2015–it was also the sort of artistic statement that threatens to overwhelm a young artist’s career. It was Kendrick’s third album, coming after a promising debut and a powerhouse major label breakthrough. The pressure was on before he released To Pimp A Butterfly–and after the year he’s had, that pressure was at an all-time high. And not every artist deals with it well. Lauryn Hill followed up a similarly epochal breakthrough by retreating for four years, then releasing her new music only in the form of an MTV Unplugged live recording; Outkast did it by waiting three years, then releasing a soundtrack album to a movie that the duo starred in; in both cases, the world’s been waiting over a decade for a proper studio follow-up.
The pressure is off Kendrick Lamar, though, because in the middle of the night last night, with no fanfare, he released Untitled Unmastered, a follow-up to To Pimp A Butterfly that comes less than a year after the release of that career-defining album. The eight-track album is short–it runs around 35 minutes, compared to the 70+ minutes of both TPAB and Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City–and it sounds a lot like To Pimp A Butterfly. It doesn’t try to hide that, either. While Untitled Unmastered is an on-brand sentiment for Kendrick Lamar, it’s also a plain description of the release, on which all eight songs are called “Untitled,” followed by a date–and six of those tracks have a date from mid/late 2014, when he’d have been knee-deep in recording Butterfly. (“Untitled 3,” marked with a date of 05.28.2013, sounds more like an early sketch for that album’s sound, while “Untitled 7,” marked 2014-2016, is a mashup of studio rap–produced by Swizz Beatz’s and Alicia Keys’s 5-year-old son, Egypt!–and Lamar’s home guitar recording.)
When you follow-up your critically adored, presidentially endorsed masterpiece less than a year later with a surprise album full of either b-sides or tracks that your friend’s kid produced for you, in other words, you’re saying two things: One, you’re not overwhelmed by the pressure of living up to what you’ve already created, and two, you’re going to keep experimenting. It’s got much more in common with how Radiohead followed-up Kid A–by dropping Amnesiac ten months later, and letting the fact that that album’s B-sides were so good that they could stand alone as one of the better albums of the following year, speak for the band’s bright future.
It’s too early to declare Untitled Unmastered one of the best albums of 2016–it’s been out for less than 12 hours, and the year is only two months old. But it is a fine companion album to To Pimp A Butterfly, full of songs that sound a lot like that album without being straight retreads. It’s imminently listenable, thoughtful without being self-serious, and even if it’s more an indication of where Kendrick has been than where he’s going, it clears him some space to get to his next level without worrying about how he’ll follow up To Pimp A Butterfly–now, he’s already done that.