Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ Turns 5

Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ Turns 5

Musician, lyricist and producer Kassa Overall on the genre-obliterating influence of a modern masterpiece. 

When To Pimp a Butterfly came out, it flooded the airwaves. It was the talk of the town. It was almost like Kendrick made a jazz record. If you heard the album, it was like, “You have to go hear this, because I don’t know what to call it exactly.” Before I even heard it, I thought it was an exciting idea.

I think it’s very hard to mix genres in a way that works properly. To Pimp a Butterfly was the first time it had ever been done in that way. It was one of the best mixtures I’d ever heard, for many reasons. For me, it was still very much a rap album. The approach to making the album was still coming from hip-hop, but he utilized the jazz world.

The track “For Free?,” where he’s rapping over the changes, showed that rhythmically Kendrick reached a certain level with his rap that allowed him to move like a horn player. But even beyond that, all the nooks and crannies on the album had these amazing musicians. He really let the musicians get to their thing inside the album as well.

It led to a lot of interest in [saxophonist Kamasi Washington, keyboardist Robert Glasper, saxophonist/keyboardist/producer Terrace Martin and other musicians] who appear on To Pimp a Butterfly. But it also led to a lot of interest in artists like that in general. It made listeners say, “Hmm, there must be a whole lot of musicians who are not big stars who may have something we should be checking out.”

It opened up the listener to start looking for what’s beneath the surface, beyond the rapper and the producer. Like, “Who’s that playing bass? Who’s that playing sax?” Being a producer and a musician who comes from the jazz lineage and a lyricist, it made me go, “Alright, I’m going to make the best work I can possibly make, and I’ve got to stop thinking about what genre I’m making.”

I recently put an album out called I THINK I’M GOOD. That album was actually in direct conversation with To Pimp a Butterfly as well as Doggystyle by Snoop. The whole idea was that I wanted to make an album that incorporated avant-garde jazz and all these musicians but had a big sound with amazing production like To Pimp a Butterfly.

The idea of “jazz/hip-hop” is a concept I’m slowly trying to get away from, as far as thinking about genre boxes in music. I think the problem is when either genre feels watered down by the other. The thing about hip-hop is that the drums hit hard. The term we use is “slaps.” That needs to be there for me.

The whole time we were making I THINK I’M GOOD, we were like, “Man, how do we make our stuff slap like Kendrick?” They’re the only guys making albums that really hit right. One of the secrets was studying [To Pimp…] mixing engineer MixedByAli’s work, and we also got Mike Bozzi, who mastered Kendrick’s records and was the protégé of Brian “Big Bass” Gardner, who mastered [Kendrick, Dr. Dre, Snoop and others]. He opened up the floodgates of creative possibilities.

I think there’s a lot of albums in which somehow the jazz influence takes away from the rap-ness of the rap. On the other end, the jazz side will become too simplified. A lot of times when [jazz musicians] play in a hip-hop setting or in a mixture of hip-hop and jazz, we don’t want to take it outside.

I think that’s the secret: not blending them up like a smoothie but putting them together like a collage. Each part needs to be strong on its own, because they go together naturally. They’re from the same tree as far as where they come from, which is black music in America. You don’t have to over-mix them. It goes together already.

Consciousness is a part of the fabric of hip-hop; sometimes it’s overt, sometimes it’s subtle. Kendrick was able to push an overt message right into the mainstream. He was conscious but not preachy; serious but fun; streetwise, not “street” for the sake of image. This allowed his messages to clearly reach people who needed to hear them.

To Pimp a Butterfly dropped after the police shootings [of unarmed African-American men] were rampant. People were marching and taking a stand against police brutality. There is an urgency in the music, a call to action in some regards. It also felt like the actual voice of the black community, not an interpretation from an outside source. And I mean that from the lyrical content to the musical tropes employed.

I remember before Kendrick put the album out, he did an interview on HOT 97 with Ebro and Rosenberg [on Ebro in the Morning]. I remember him coming off as extremely humble and quiet, almost like he didn’t have anything to say. The reality was that he was getting ready to say a lot, so he had to play it cool before he hit us with the big message.

To Pimp a Butterfly is so multidimensional in nature. He is dealing with social issues, but he also dealt with his internal struggles [while making] party records, and he made it all fit together. That’s hard work and mastery.

[As told to Morgan Enos]

Aside from his own work, Kassa Overall has performed with a formidable list of varied artists including Yoko Ono, Christian McBride, Arto Lindsay, Vijay Iyer, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Terri Lyne Carrington, Francis and the Lights, Marc Ribot, Mayer Hawthorne, Ravi Coltrane, Gary Bartz and many more. He spent several years as a key member of pianist Geri Allen’s Timeline band and spent close to a decade touring and recording with trumpeter Theo Croker (whose Escape Velocity he co-produced). As a rapper and producer, Overall has collaborated with the hip-hop outfit Das Racist. In 2017 he was part of Stephen Colbert’s house band, Jon Batiste & Stay Human.

Image courtesy of Interscope.

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