500 Greatest Albums: Kendrick Lamar’s Hip-Hop Game Changer ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’
As part of our newly updated survey of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, we’re publishing a series of pieces on the making of key albums from the list. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly came in at number 19.
The first time the Parliament-Funkadelic legend George Clinton heard the rising Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar, he was underwhelmed. “I knew ‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’ and thought it sounded silly as hell,” the funkateer recalled.
But Clinton agreed to meet with Lamar while the rapper was working on his second major-label album, and the veteran’s opinion changed immediately. “The conversations we had reminded me of myself in ’68 and ’69; he had that same kind of enthusiasm about social issues and the world,” Clinton explained. “He captured my mind right away. … I said, ‘If you writing songs about that shit, and you’re already popular, you’re gonna be the one!'”
Clinton wasn’t wrong: Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which came out in 2015, is a music-industry unicorn — not only one of the most critically acclaimed releases of the last decade, but a million-seller, an album that earned the admiration of President Barack Obama, while also offering an anthem to protesters in the street.
“That record changed music, and we’re still seeing the effects of it,” declared Kamasi Washington, who contributed saxophone and string arrangements. “It meant that intellectually stimulating music doesn’t have to be underground. It can be mainstream.”
The initial jolt of inspiration for To Pimp a Butterfly came while Lamar was visiting South Africa, a trip that included a visit to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was in prison for 18 years. “I felt like I belonged in Africa,” Lamar said. “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.” Lamar had already recorded some material for a second album, but he scrapped it.
Accomplishing his new vision required a murderers’ row of collaborators, not just Lamar’s regular accomplices — including the producers and instrumentalists Terrace Martin and Sounwave — but luminaries from soul (Ron Isley, Lalah Hathaway), funk (Clinton), and hip-hop (Dr. Dre, Pharrell Williams, Pete Rock, Snoop Dogg). In addition, Lamar leaned on a crew of musical polymaths who move easily between genres, including Washington on saxophone, Robert Glasper on keyboards, Thundercat on bass, and Bilal on backing vocals.
Lamar sparked, shaped, and synthesized songs all at once. “He can instantly write a song that’s dope as hell,” Washington explained, “but then spend the time to meticulously work it out and make it perfect.” “King Kunta” started as “the jazziest thing ever with pretty flutes,” according to Sounwave, until Lamar instructed the producer to “make it nasty.” Lamar caught Thundercat playing an unreleased track from the L.A. underground hip-hop act Sa-Ra; the rapper liked it so much he called up Sa-Ra’s Taz Arnold, who went on to help produce three To Pimp a Butterfly tracks.
Time was no object — Lamar sat with Pharrell’s beat for “Alright” for six months before transforming it into a mantra of persistence that the men and women protesting police brutality turned into an anthem in 2015. Lamar also nursed the beat to “The Blacker the Berry”; when Mike Brown was murdered, the rapper pivoted to address the killing in his lyrics.
When To Pimp a Butterfly finally came out, “it went beyond everything else … harmonically, instrumentation-wise, structurally, lyrically,” Washington said. “I feel like people’s expectations of themselves changed, too. It just didn’t change the music. It changed the audience.”
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