In between ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’ and ‘To Pimp A Butterfly,’ a 2014 trip to South Africa changed Kendrick Lamar. As he toured the country — visiting historic sites such as Nelson Mandela’s jail cell on Robben Island — his worldview broadened, and so did his music. The trip led Lamar to scrap “two or three albums worth of material,” according to engineer/mixer Derek “MixedByAli” Ali.
Lamar wanted to make music that reflected the sounds of his upbringing in Compton, Calif. He began to listen to the likes of Sly Stone, Donald Byrd and Miles Davis. Eventually To Pimp A Butterfly took form, incorporating elements of jazz, funk, soul, spoken word, and hip-hop.
“I wanted to do a record like this on my debut album but I wasn’t confident enough,” says Lamar.
Lamar garnered 11 GRAMMY nominations, including Best Rap Album and Album Of The Year. Following, Lamar and key collaborators tell the story of To Pimp A Butterfly.
Kendrick Lamar (artist): The title grasped the entire concept of the record. [I wanted to] break down the idea of being pimped in the industry, in the community and out of all the knowledge that you thought you had known, then discovering new life and wanting to share it.
Sounwave (co-producer): I remember he took a trip to Africa and something in his mind just clicked. For me, that’s when this album really started.
Lamar: I felt like I belonged in Africa. I saw all the things that I wasn’t taught. Probably one of the hardest things to do is put [together] a concept on how beautiful a place can be, and tell a person this while they’re still in the ghettos of Compton. I wanted to put that experience in the music.
Derek “MixedByAli” Ali (co-engineer/mixer): [Lamar is] a sponge. He incorporated everything that was going on [in Africa] and in his life to complete a million-piece puzzle.
Lamar: I was on tour with Kanye [West] and I had Flying Lotus with me because I wanted to work on the bus studio. He would make beats and it was one particular beat that he forgot to play. He skipped it but I heard about three seconds of it and I asked him, “What is that?” He said, “You don’t know nothing about that. That’s real funk. … You’re not going to rap on that.” It was like a dare.
Thundercat (co-producer): [“Wesley’s Theory”] started with Flying Lotus and I sitting on the couch in front of the computer analyzing George Clinton. He became the fuel for creating. I was really blown away that Kendrick was so into that song.
Sounwave: That song is the album cover.
Lamar: I had to find George Clinton in the woods, man. He was somewhere in the South and I had to fly out to him. We got in the studio and just clicked. Rocking with him took my craft to another level and that pushed me to make more records like that for the album.
Sounwave: When we first did “King Kunta,” the beat was the jazziest thing ever with pretty flutes. Kendrick said he liked it but to “make it nasty.” He referenced a DJ Quik record with Mausberg [“Get Nekkid”] and he told me what to do with it. I added different drums to it, simplified it, got Thundercat on the bass, and it was a wrap.
Thundercat: That strong-a** rhythm with banging drums and bass was created by me and Sounwave watching “Fist Of The North Star” while eating Yoshinoya. It’s funny because a lot of this album was created eating Yoshinoya and watching cartoons. It was so funky and so black.
Terrace Martin (co-producer): If you dig deeper you hear the lineage of James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Mahalia Jackson, the sounds of Africa, and our people when they started over here. I hear something different every time. I heard Cuban elements in it the other day.