Essay

Who’s Who On Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly

Even after less than a week’s worth of impressions, To Pimp A Butterfly leaves a distinct impression: Kendrick Lamar needs a lot of collaborators to help him figure out who has his back. Kendrick’s focus on working his post-fame nerves from every angle — self-awareness, self-doubt, self-centeredness, self-love — pushes back against the ego-trip narrative so often placed on artists who are realizing the growing rush of fame and power. Kendrick writes and raps like he’s trying to figure out how to harness that weight, how to square the last few years of his recent life with the first twenty or so that made him who he is, how to represent himself and his home and his community without turning that representation into a distortion or a corruption of everyone involved. It’s like he stepped back from his world-beater napalm verse on “Control” and started questioning how far that fury could get him.

In a case like this, where the followup to a career-defining blockbuster work of art can be a downhill-sloping minefield, figuring out a compatible selection of collaborators is more crucial than ever. And what’s compelling beneath the surface of To Pimp A Butterfly is that even with some of the hitmakers and marquee names involved (Pharrell, Boi 1-da, Lalah Hathaway, James Fauntleroy, Ron Isley) and a collection of peerless soul/jazz/hip-hop polyglots like keyboardist Robert Glasper and saxophonist Kamasi Washington directing the album’s post-Soulquarian feel, there are cohorts on this record that reveal just as much about Kendrick’s approach with their very presence as his actual lyrics do. Here are ten of the more notable ones.

Flying Lotus

TPAB Contributions: production on “Wesley’s Theory”
Recent years have seen Steven Ellison ascend from the vaguely arcane, IDM-adjacent alt-hip-hop world of Los Angeles’s beat scene to make a major mainstream impact. That ranges from scoring episodes of Adventure Time and getting his own Grand Theft Auto V radio station to getting marquee guests like Herbie Hancock and Snoop Dogg to collaborate with him on last year’s album You’re Dead! And his ear for future-is-now jazz-laced composition was rewarded most prominently with Lamar’s appearance on early single “Never Catch Me,” where Kendrick’s performance feels like an early foray into the territory TPAB walks — which makes sense when you realize Kendrick originally wanted it for his own album. On “Wesley’s Theory,” as on “Never Catch Me,” he confronts his mortality, his self-conscious what-next fear of falling off, and the possibility of his legacy with some lines (“vandalizing these walls only if they could talk”) that should sound resonant to anyone who’s heard the new album. FlyLo’s blend of building spiritual intensity and melodic grace takes a more familiar form on “Wesley’s Theory” — but its familiarity comes in multi-generational layers, mid-’10s via mid ’90s via mid ’70s, the eras that influenced and were influenced by peak West Coast g-funk colliding with each other in a backdrop that puts Kendrick in a time-displaced world of aspirations and frustrations long in the making.

George Clinton

TPAB Contributions: guest vocals on “Wesley’s Theory”
As Flying Lotus remarked on Twitter: “When I played [Kendrick] that beat he asked me who I imagined on it. I laughed and said @george_clinton. I never thought it would actually happen[.]” But it did, and it works brilliantly. The timing of Clinton’s leadoff-track appearance is pretty fortuitous; his essential autobio Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard On You? and the first album under the Funkadelic name in 33 years, First You Gotta Shake The Gate, have only been out a few months and are still relatively fresh in the memory. But his elder-statesman status in hip-hop should be a foregone conclusion by now, as he’s spent decades as the stylistic and philosophical father figure that’s co-signed Digital Underground, Ice Cube, 2Pac, and other West Coast legends that Kendrick’s been both learning and distinguishing himself from. Clinton’s role on the record is brief but crucial, introducing the titular metaphor that the album centers around, the essence of which is this: Now that you’ve “made it,” what’ll they make you out to be? “Are you really who they idolize?” is maybe the most important line to come from the mouth of anyone on this album other than Kendrick. And hearing it from a man renowned for hopping identities from character to outlandish character as a way of commenting on both the process of making music and the perceptions of (and within) black communities everywhere is even more of a fitting touch than the burbly Parliament-isms in the production.

Thundercat

TPAB Contributions: co-production on “Wesley’s Theory,” “Hood Politics,” and “Complexion (A Zulu Love)”; additional bass on “King Kunta,” “These Walls,” “The Blacker The Berry,” “i,” and “Mortal Man”; background vocals on “Alright” and “You Ain’t Gotta Lie (Momma Said)”
You could call Stephen Bruner FlyLo’s sideman, or cohort, or songwriting partner, or what-have-you — in any case, he’s been an integral component of Flying Lotus’ sound since Cosmogramma and has been expanding his own bass-virtuoso role into something wider and more versatile since 2013’s Apocalypse showed off his ambitious range. (Which was more characteristic, the boogie-funk ecstasy freakout or the orchestral soul-jazz suite in memory of a lost friend? Well, why choose?) Thundercat’s bass is all over this record — sometimes subsumed into another producer’s signature, sometimes out front to let his characteristically buoyant runs punctuate the mood whether it’s strained or romantic (or both). It brings up an ironic reversal of the usual hired-hand story: Thundercat’s been so compelling as a headliner, it’s almost possible to forget what a great sessionman he is.

Sounwave

TPAB Contributions: Production on “Mortal Man”; co-production on “King Kunta,” “These Walls,” “For Sale? (Interlude),” “Hood Politics,” “Complexion (A Zulu Love)”
There’s no such thing as a Kendrick Lamar album without Sounwave — at least, not since he stopped going by “K-Dot.” On the last day of the aughts, Kendrick’s self-titled “beginning of the story of the good kid that just wants to rap” dropped with five beats produced by TDE’s in-house producer. And Mark Spears would go on to create some of the Black Hippy collective’s most memorable tracks, from Kendrick’s “A.D.H.D.,” “Rigamortis,” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” to ScHoolboy Q’s “There He Go” and “Prescription/Oxymoron” to Ab-Soul’s “Double Standards.” He’s subsequently left a signature imprint that leans on dropping beats so hard and resilient that he can get away with laying over gauzy synths and string sections that only emphasize the track’s impact instead of dulling it. Good luck finding anybody better qualified to deliver TPAB’s closing statement “Mortal Man,” where Sounwave’s blend of meditative quietude (and silence) with brooding depth helps Kendrick carry the emotional weight.

Terrace Martin

TPAB Contributions: production on “For Free? (Interlude)”; co-production on “King Kunta,” “These Walls,” “For Sale? (Interlude),” “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” “The Blacker The Berry”
A musical prodigy versed in both jazz and hip-hop from a very young age, Terrace Martin parlayed his interest in both movements into an early breakthrough producing, writing, and playing instruments on Snoop Dogg’s 2008 record Ego Trippin’. Something of a secret weapon on a record already featuring contributions by DJ Quik, Teddy Riley, and Raphael Saadiq, Martin’s super-utility role soon expanded into go-to status, partnering with everyone from L.A. indie-rap icon MURS (including producing their 2011 full-length teamup Melrose) to YG (his keyboards are all over My Krazy Life). Terrace and Kendrick go all the way back to 2010 mixtape Here, My Dear, his freewheeling sax solo on the jazz-inflected Section.80 deep cut “Ab-Soul’s Outro” was one of the record’s more startling, inspiring moments, and his gleaming pulsebeat production on good kid’s “Real” even out-Neptunes Pharrell. A bigger role on TPAB, including several co-production pairings with Sounwave, do a lot to give the album its neo-soul/jazz-fusion shape while still maintaining Kendrick’s familiar ties.

Bilal

TPAB Contributions: vocals on “Institutionalized” and “These Walls”
Eleven years before “Compton” took every degree of separation out of Kendrick’s g-funk lineage, Dr. Dre laced another rising star with a couple of beats — in this case, rangy Soulquarian-affiliated singer Bilal, whose spaced-out 1st Born Second achieved modest commercial success thanks in part to tracks like “Fast Lane” and “Sally.” While it has all the makings of a classic in retrospect, industry bullshit over his unreleased, “unmarketable” auteurist followup Love For Sale pushed what should’ve been a high-profile career into a background of feature spots and disillusionment. That makes his appearance on TPAB something more than just a “name” get. On a record informed largely by apprehension toward what fame and the industry might hold, having one of R&B’s key examples of how that struggle can change an artist makes a statement in itself. Even more so when he spends so much of that time harmonizing.

Anna Wise

TPAB Contributions: vocals on “Institutionalized” and “These Walls”
Bilal’s partner in harmonies has her own out-of-nowhere origins — “nowhere” being relative in the music business, of course. The voice most prominently known for her duet hook on Kendrick’s “Real” had notable gigs beforehand (most prominently as part of the chillwave duo Sonnymoon) and afterwards (collaborating with L.A. beat-scene experimentalists like Teebs and Mndsgn). But it’s her appearances on the one-two of “Institutionalized” and “These Walls” that draw out her potential as a mainstream pop/R&B presence, especially with her voice given all that room to stretch out.

Snoop Dogg

TPAB Contributions: guest verse on “Institutionalized”
For an album so steeped in the pressures of what it means to represent a new movement in West Coast hip-hop, the fact that Snoop is the only representative of Cali’s golden era to appear for more than a voicemail-delivered interlude or an interview from beyond the grave makes his guest spot pretty poignant. As another artist who’s had to reinvent himself from time to time — whether way out of his wheelhouse or in a rejuvenating new corner of it — Snoop’s reprise of his vintage Long Beach Slick Rick poise fits a striking role. The reason: It’s in the service of the album’s ongoing tale of a hood upbringing looming over whatever success might be gained outside of it. From one of the most successful examples, it feels like what could’ve been a torch-passing in a more triumphant context is a cautionary bit of bonding from an older-but-wiser vet.

Knxwledge

TPAB Contributions: co-production on “Momma”
Never let it be said that Kendrick doesn’t dig deep. Knxwledge isn’t a complete unknown, especially considering last year’s addition to the Stones Throw roster. And his track record doing gorgeous wobbly-cassette beats for such far-flung underground favorites as introspective L.A. eccentric Blu (“Keep Pushinn“), unpredictable Detroit wiseass Quelle Chris (“Look At Shorty“), and thoughtful Queens everyman Homeboy Sandman (“Problems“) gives him free reign to work in all kinds of modes. J Dilla comparisons are both fitting and kind of reductive; his dizzying prolific streak releasing dozens upon dozens of beats to his Bandcamp page — as compiled in 2013’s Anthology — reveals a similarly exhaustive working method but a willingness to push under-quantized drums and non-sequitur loops to crazier ends.

Rapsody

TPAB Contributions: guest verse on “Complexion (A Zulu Love)”
Rapsody seems like the kind of artist who’s spent the last five-plus years doing what she can to break out of the “underrated” compartment. Hot-verse cameos on 9th Wonder-produced tracks alongside Buckshot (“Shorty Left“) and Murs (“Get Together“) have led to a definite cult renown — the kind that’s earned her the occasional album-closing posse-cut honor — but headliner albums like 2012’s The Idea Of Beautiful, 2013’s mixtape She Got Game, and 2014’s Beauty And The Beast EP should do more than enough to convince skeptics that she can carry her own record. Rapsody’s verse on “Complexion” should be a name-maker, but it’s not even her first go with Kendrick: K-Dot appeared on her mixtape For Everything back in 2011 for a truncated but breath-snatching voice on “Rock The Bells.”

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Read our Premature Evaluation of To Pimp A Butterfly here.