Pimping the Butterfly: The jazz influences behind Kendrick Lamar’s acclaimed 2015 release

There is nowhere a music listener can go without at least seeing the album art of Kendrick Lamar’s third studio effort, To Pimp a Butterfly, which was released earlier this year. The album, with not even a year’s worth of exposure, is already being hailed by critics as one of hip-hop’s greatest records, and Kendrick’s own personal magnum opus. The critics aren’t wrong, and as the Grammys for 2015 were announced, To Pimp a Butterfly has been nominated for Album of the Year, Best Rap Album, Song of the Year, Best Rap Song, Best Rap Performance (“Alright”), and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (“These Walls”). President Barack Obama has named “How Much a Dollar Cost” his favorite song of 2015.

With an increasingly apparent jazz influence, Kendrick speaks out on major socioeconomic and political issues such as tax evasion, the obsession to be rich, ingrained African American stereotypes, and even calls out President Obama on “Hood Politics”. Since Jazz is such an integral and important part of African American culture in America, the musically styling only helps to accentuate the topics he raps on. Just like renowned jazz bassist Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus” before him, Kendrick boldly tackles societal problems and hopes to form change from the music created and inspired by the music that helped to spur the civil rights movement 50 years prior. To achieve such a lush, layered, and authentic sound, Kendrick brought in some up and coming names in jazz to head the task of creating the environment that sustains To Pimp a Butterfly all the way through.

The principle bass player featured on the album is Stephen Bruner, better known by his stage name of Thundercat. Bruner, a native of Los Angeles, has been all over the R&B world, collaborating on an amazingly high number of projects, most notably with producer and artist Flying Lotus on his albums Until the Quiet Comes and You’re Dead! in 2012 and 2014, respectively. Kendrick brought Thundercat in shortly after the release of 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and had an immediate impression, opening him up to the wonders of Miles Davis’ work which prompted the hiring of Taz Arnold to produce “Momma”, “u”, and “For Sale (Interlude)”, according to the Rolling Stone interview that took place back in April. Cited as being “at the creative epicenter” of the recording process, it is clear how much influence Thundercat’s presence had on the album’s final sound. In addition to session work and collaboration, Thundercat has three solo albums, 2011’s The Golden Age of Apocalypse, 2013’s Apocalypse, and his latest in 2015, The Beyond / Where the Giants Roam. His solo work alone, complete with dark and warm experimental R&B, is enough to catapult his status as a figure in the music world, but his presence as a producer and collaborator make him that much more of a rising star.

Another center point for Kendrick is tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington, currently hailed as the second coming of jazz great John Coltrane. Throughout the album, Kamasi gives To Pimp a Butterfly extra weight by arranging and conducting the string section, as well as provide his virtuosity on sax. At 13 years old, Kamasi picked up saxophone and eventualy formed the Young Jazz Giants quartet, which included fellow student Stephen Bruner. His involvement stretches across the musical spectrum, appearing on records by the Broken Bells and Harvey Manson, although his most focused work came on Flying Lotus’ label, Brainfeeder, home to both him and Thundercat. In 2015, Kamasi released his first solo album, the 3 LP The Epic., which spans a journey through the jazz, fusion, soul, and even choral worlds. His compositions are complex, intricate, and ultimately, give the listener substance to create entire storylines mentally. Washington has already proven to the Jazz world he means business, and his collaborations with Kendrick are just the beginning.

In addition, Snarky Puppy drummer Robert “Sput” Searight was brought in to drum on tracks “For Free”, and “Hood Politics”. Searight’s masterful drumming and use of linear patterns brings a gospel-like approach to the rhythms of the album, where he got his formative skills. His experience with multi-genre styles and arrangements can be heard in his ability to complement the intricacies of Kendrick’s voice and pattern, using jazz comping to enhance the cohesiveness of the music altogether.

To Pimp a Butterfly might be a rap album, but the jazz influences of all ages is clearly demonstrated in both the soundscape of the record and in the personnel brought in to achieve such a feat. In an interview with The Guardian, Kamasi Washington expresses his awe of Kendrick, and how he let them, “put that much of their selves in there. I was happy to be a part of it, but I was really proud of them to have created something that beautiful”. By surrounding himself with budding jazz figures, Kendrick was able to grow as a musician with his latest work, reaching back in time to capture the essence of his commentary at its peak, and it’s this that makes the album so powerful and effective.

(image courtesy of The Guardian)

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