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The L.A. Roots of Kendrick Lamar's 'To Pimp a Butterfly'

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"To Pimp a Butterfly" album cover

Kendrick Lamar's new album, "To Pimp a Butterfly," is an L.A. album, just not the L.A. most people think of. On March 16, his much anticipated LP leaked before its official release slated for this week. And last night, he debuted a few tracks to crowds in Hollywood, rapping on the back of a flatbed truck rolling down Sunset Boulevard. It's a fitting setting, well represented in the "Cali sound" that's infused L.A. hip-hop dating back to the 1980s: think thick bass slaps and syrupy synthesizers, the tell-tale signatures of g-funk grooves that Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, Battlecat and many others have helped craft over the years. 

"To Pimp A Butterfly" dips into that lane at times but it's not remotely beholden to it. Instead, the album feels like a generational coming-of-age effort for a younger cohort of L.A.'s beat makers and studio players. It's as if the project was born during "The Chronic" era, babysat by the Project Blowed collective, raised on late-era J. Dilla beats and Bilal b-sides, then sent to Digi+Phonics academy with after-school tutoring at Low End Theory. 

There's a few marquee hit-makers who contribute -- Pharrell Willliams and Boi-1da for example - but the rest of the album's credits read like a veritable who's who of L.A. sound providers: TDE's (Top Dawg Entertainment) in-house guru Sounwave, Brainfeeder bassist extraordinaire Thundercat, and saxophonist Terrace Martin. 

Considering that Lamar could have easily recruited producers and players from anywhere he wanted, the fact that he kept the crew so local feels like a statement in-and-of-itself. His last LP, "good kid/m.A.A.d city," was more explicitly L.A. in its lyrical themes but "To Pimp a Butterfly" sounds more like the hodgepodge of the metropolis itself: dense, sprawling, majestic and cinematic. It's the L.A. that is also shown in Lamar's collaboration with filmmaker Kahlil Joseph, whose dual screen projection Double Conscience is now screening at MOCA Grand Avenue, featuring the rapper's music paired to scenes of South Los Angeles. 

Others have impressively, exhaustively cataloged every single player on "To Pimp a Butterfly" so rather than duplicate those efforts, our attempt here is to trace the album's distinct L.A.-centric musical roots and branches.

From the album's first song, "Wesley's Theory," it's clear that the album embarks on a different sonic direction. Produced by both Ronald "Flippa" Colson - best known for his work with Rihnna, Nicki Minaj and Usher -- and L.A.'s own Flying Lotus, the song's murky, wobbly track sets the pace for the next 70 plus minutes, forewarning the listener of the maelstrom of styles that lay ahead. 

Flying Lotus and Lamar worked together last fall on Lotus's rousing "Never Catch Me," and the swirling chaos of "Wesley's Theory," should be familiar to anyone who's followed the kind of experiments in jazz musicianship and hip-hop beat-making that's distinguished the beat-maker's Brainfeeder label. The album borrows heavily from the collective, most obviously in the prominent inclusion of Thundercat, who helps produce three tracks while lending his bass to at least five songs. He's one of the core "hubs" on the album, having previously worked with at least half a dozen other producers/players including pianist Robert Glasper, singer Bilal, and producer Taz Arnold. Thundercat (aka Stephen Bruner) even brings aboard his older brother, Robert Bruner Jr., to play drums on "The Blacker the Berry."   

 

The album's free-wheeling jazz excursions have annoyed a scant, few listeners, perhaps most of all on the second track, "For Free? (Interlude)."  Personally, I find "For Free?'s" sax-y noodling and poetry slam verve to be its charm, not just reminding me of something Melvin Van Peebles might have cooked up in the early 1970s but also of L.A.'s Freestyle Fellowship, who've been known to scit-scat over racing jazz beats

Throughout his career, Lamar's densely intricate rhyme styles have seemed partially influenced by the Freestyle Fellowship and Project Blowed collective and the album has a direct link to them via trumpeter Josef Leimberg. He's featured on half a dozen of the album's songs and Leimberg is also one-half of the LoveDragon production team that crafted both "How Much a Dollar Cost" and "You Ain't Gotta Lie (Momma Said)." His history with the Southland hip-hop scene goes at least as far back as 1994, when he joined Project Blowed alum Volume 10 on his slept-on "Hip-Hopera." Like other players on the LP, Leimberg also has links with Snoop Dogg and Sa-Ra Creative Partners, creating even more overlapping strands to other parts of the L.A. hip-hop scene. 

Update 3/27: Photographer Brain "B+" Cross reminded me that Leimberg used to be known as Dr. Soose from Mad Kap, the underrated, jazz-influenced L.A. hip-hop group that released several 12"s and an album circa '93. Presumably, that's Leimberg blowing his horn in the video for "Da Whole Kit and Kaboodle." 

However, when it comes to interconnections, no one on the album, besides Lamar, is better connected than saxophonist Terrace Martin. Not only does he appear on more songs than any other producer/player, but through Martin, you can trace collaborations to at least eight other people on the album. That obviously includes Leimberg, his co-partner in LoveDragon, but Martin's also worked with Glasper, backup singer Anna Wise, percussionist Larrance Dopson, and his brother, Snarky Puppy drummer Robert Sput Searight, also plays on a pair of songs. 

Those crossed paths befit an artist of Martin's experience and stature. He first began working with Snoop Dogg and his crew in the mid-2000s and since then, has become one of the rapper's most stalwart musical partners. Martin also has a long history with L.A. rapper Murs when he hasn't been busy working with DJ Quik, Kurupt and Ab-Soul. Martin and Lamar's partnership begins with "Section 80,continued on "good kid" and then Martin all but became one of the album's unofficial executive producers, having helped produce six songs and plays sax on all but two. 

Almost as prolific as Martin is his long-time session partner, seasoned guitarist Marlon Williams who plays on nearly half of the album's songs. Like Martin, Williams also traces his career back to Snoop and Warren G but he's been playing as early as 1998, when he was backing up Jody Watley. Rounding out the trio of former Snoop players is percussionist -- and Inglewood native -- Larrance Dopson who doesn't just play on over a third of the songs but also co-produces the slinky, proto-disco jam "These Walls." 

 

Notably, for all its g-funk alum, "TPABisn't particularly heavy on g-funk -- or p-funk for that matter, despite George Clinton's cameo. There are traces here and there, most notably on the Sounwave-produced "King Kunta," the closest thing the album has to a West Coast party hit. That song itself heavily nods back to 2000's "Get Nekkid," produced by DJ Quik for the late Mausberg, but for the most part, "TPAB" has more in common with the neo-soul of The Roots' "Phrenologyor Common's "Electric Circusthan anything that you might have heard the late Nate Dogg once croon over.

That neo-soul touch comes from all corners on "TPAB," such as the inclusion of veteran singers such as Bilal and Lalah Hathaway and especially on the production of songs such as Martin/Dopson's "These Walls," LoveDragon's "You Ain't Gotta Lie," and especially "Complexion (A Zulu Love)," produced by Thundercat and Sounwave, with assistance by Martin and Antydote. Neo-soul is hardly unique to L.A., but since the 1990s, the city has been a key site, especially once Soulquarian member J. Dilla relocated here from Detroit. Dilla passed away in 2006. 

 

Taz Arnold, aka Ti$a plays a key role here too. He's formerly one-third of L.A.'s Sa-Ra Creative Partners, another obvious influence on not just Lamar's album but also the stylings of Robert Glasper and the Brainfeeder family. Arnold helps produce five of the album's songs, perhaps none more memorable than the loopy "u" that is co-produced by Whoarei. The song's second half features not one, not two, but three overlapping saxophonists who contribute to its slurring, lumbering feel, over which Lamar lays down some bizarrely anguished vocals. 

 

Last, but hardly least, is L.A.'s most recent powerhouse production team: the in-house talents working with Lamar's TDE label. The most prominent is Sounwave, Lamar's most dependable production partner over the years, and he has an outsized role on the album as the primary sound man behind five songs, assisting on three others and even sprinkling some keys on "You Ain't Gotta Lie." Sounwave's behind some of Lamar's biggest hits over the years, including "A.D.H.D." from "Section 80" and "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" on "good kid/m.A.A.d city." He's masterful at creating an atmospheric sense of space in his songs and for this latest work, the most potent example is the album's closer, "Mortal Man," which features vocal echoes, slurring drums, and a sweeping string section. There's a long conversation with 2Pac at the end.

 

Beyond Sounwave, TDE's other affiliates are in full effect, including L.A.'s Rahki, who works on both "i" and "Institutionalized" as well as Fredrik "Tommy Black" Halldin, who co-produces the latter song, making him the only other producer besides Sounwave who has at least one track on every Lamar album dating back to 2010's "Overly Dedicated." Halldin's not an Angeleno but his track record is plenty impressive considering he's a kid from Sweden.

The scary part of all this is that I've named at least 20 artists who worked on "To Pimp A Butterflyand that's not even half the 71 people who get a credit on the LP. No doubt, of the other 50 or so, there's likely to be even more L.A. connections. Let's not forget Dr. Dre. While I wouldn't claim that the album is the definitive L.A. hip-hop album, it's ability to bring together such diverse parts of the city's musical landscape is a remarkable feat, just one of many that Kendrick Lamar accomplishes on this latest masterpiece. 


 

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