Now that Kendrick Lamar has concluded his recent Kunta's Groove Sessions tour of his latest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, it's unclear whether Lamar will ever perform the new black national anthem, "Alright," in a properly huge arena. “This might be the first and last time I perform To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar told 3,000 fans in Dallas.
While many attendees have raved about Kendrick's limited run of live performances, the rapper has yet to perform To Pimp a Butterfly with the backing of the many stellar musicians—including Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Thundercat, and Terrace Martin—who helped Kendrick craft his masterpiece. We reached out to Kendrick Lamar's producer and go-to saxman, Terrace Martin, to find out whether or not Kendrick is serious about never again performing the album in full. We also wanted to hear a musician's take on the broad acclaim for an album that was nigh exclusively crafted for a black audience.
Terrace Martin also explains how D'Angelo's latest album, Black Messiah, profoundly influenced the later TPAB recording sessions, which were defined by "dark energy" and a previously untold loss.
Were you originally supposed to tour with Kendrick for his Kunta’s Groove Sessions?
I think some of us would’ve done it, but they put that tour together fast. I think one day soon, we’ll all get together and play together on stage. Right now, Kendrick is doing his thing, live, and he’s doing a damn great job.
Have you gotten to see any of his shows?
I saw L.A.
How was that?
Amazing. I was finally seeing these songs come to life.
What was the crowd like?
It was a mixed crowd. All different walks of life. Kids that would listen to Fetty Wap, YG, Ty Dolla $ign, Jay Z. Kids that listen to Sly Stone, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix. Age 18, 21, 25, 34, 37, 43, 46. You felt the love in the room.
You and I once talked about how the record is crafted for a black audience. Why do you think the album translates so well to a mixed crowd?
Kendrick’s album is definitely from the heart, mind, and soul of a young black male speaking to his people. But also, more than pro-black, I believe this album has become pro-human being, pro-everybody. Playing this music for a mixed crowd is simple because we don’t look at it as a mixed crowd. We look at it as our relatives within the art community, where we don’t experience black and white or none of that bullshit that the police and the government got us going through as black people. Within the art is a place of safety. A place of love, man.
To Pimp a Butterfly is beauty within the problems of our culture and our people. It’s a wake-up call. It’s an audiobook to help get the message out to others, including some allies that can help us. We have allies that understand struggle, but sometimes they don’t know we going through this shit. But I will say it again: To Pimp a Butterfly is a black album.
I think the album’s importance was apparent before we even knew what to do with the music. I don’t know another album that’s got that sort of reaction out of my generation. What about you?
It took me five years to fully grasp Makaveli [The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory]. When I was in high school, I heard it the first day it came out, and then I didn’t hear it again until way after that. People think music goes through your ears, but really it hits your spirit first, then your ears. With music, I gotta live with it. I gotta throw it in the car, drive to it, talk over it, eat to it, just have it in the background, not even think about it. I have to really live with the music and the artist before I really grasp it. I’m going through that now with Black Messiah.
That album was one of my biggest inspirations when I was producing on To Pimp a Butterfly. Black Messiah was the newest, freshest thing that me, Sounwave, Kendrick, and Thundercat felt we could grasp and believe in. We were fans, and yet we felt like we were a part of it. We wanted to coincide with D’Angelo’s energy.
D’Angelo dropped Black Messiah in December. How deep were you guys into recording at that point?
I was in my hotel room in New York City. We had been flown out to do the Colbert Report. It was me, Thundercat, Anna Wise, Bilal. I had been listening to Black Messiah the whole plane ride. But I wasn’t really listening. I was just living with it. Just having it around.
We did the show. We had a ball. After the show, me and Thundercat met with a friend of mine, Megan, at Zinc Bar, a jazz club in New York. It was a Tuesday night. We’re at a jam session playing jazz, jazz, jazz. And all I could think about was that fucking D’Angelo record. All I could think about was how they mixed it, how his vocals sound, how the singing made me feel, how the love songs were hitting my spirit. It clicked for me that night in New York. I call Sounwave. I say, let’s go back in, let’s add these other layers. We went back to the studio, and that’s when I started renting and buying other keyboards just to—not to sound like D’Angelo, but to pay homage to D’Angelo with certain songs.
Which songs were you recording at that point?
The end of “Lucy” (“For Sale?”). We put some Sly Stone energy in that motherfucker. Some Buddy Miles, some James Brown. But don’t forget D’Angelo, boy! After that spark, God was in the room every night.
What’s the difference between the blackness of To Pimp a Butterfly versus the blackness of, say, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late? Drake’s sound is built upon Jodeci, Timbaland, Aaliyah, and that’s all black music, too.
It’s all black. I think there’s a small, but huge, difference. Kendrick and Drake are both excellent artists, both amazing, both gifted, both anointed, both prolific—they’re both great.
I need the music to tell me a story just like I need the lyrics to tell me a story. With Drake, musically, it’s hard for me to believe what he says over that particular bed of music because his music doesn’t really breathe. It loops a lot. Which is beautiful, I love it, it’s perfectly fine. But musically, it doesn’t tell me a story that adds another level to the lyricism. I believe that everything as a whole needs to be great, not just the words. That doesn’t mean you have to play jazz or blues, or that you have to add a saxophone. It just means I want more dynamism, musically, because life is dynamic.
I just listened to "Mortal Man," for the first time since it came out, two days ago. I started having flashback to the sessions. Kamasi Washington did the strings arrangement for "Mortal Man." I did the horn. In the L.A. music community—me, Thundercat, Kamasi, Ronald Bruner, Ryan Porter, Brandon Coleman, Taylor Graves, Cameron Graves, Miles Mosley—a very special friend of ours died. A guy who you’d have been hearing about now. He would’ve been on Kendrick’s record, but our friend committed suicide. He was the best saxophone player you’ve ever fucking heard in Los Angeles, California. He played alto sax. He was our dear friend, Zane Musa.
The day we did the strings for “Mortal Man,” there was a silent, thick energy of loss. Our friend was one of the best saxophone players in the world, and he committed suicide. This album is deeper than what motherfuckers know. There was a dark energy in that studio, we were at Chapman Studios. We kept running out, crying, coming back in. When I was writing the arrangement on the piano, we got so emotional. And I’d hear a chord that was wrong. To me, it was wrong. It was wrong, man! I didn’t even correct it. I didn’t even listen to it again until after we mixed it. When I listen to "Mortal Man" now, it did something to my heart to remind me of my friend. And that was so right. Something so wrong ended up so right when I gave it time to just breathe. This whole record is those experiences. See what I’m saying?
Whoever is trying to analyze it from a pure analytical way, they’ve already lost. But we need critics. We love critics. We keep y’all going, y’all keep us going. When the record companies didn’t really fuck with our kind of music, the blogs and the critics did.
Who wrote the article that caused a big fuss recently?
I wrote the Complex article, and then—
Wait—Justin, did you write that Complex article that caused a big fuss?!
You wrote the one?
Ha-ha! I love it! Your next article gotta be crazy.
Some people loved the essay. Some readers resented it. Some readers interpreted it as a vendetta against jazz. What did you think?
I’m glad I didn’t know you wrote it. I thought: it’s touched something for this person to even say all of this. That’s all I care about. That’s what it’s supposed to do. It’s a conversation piece.
Did you take the essay as disrespect?
Uh, no. We love that shit. We think everybody lies. We think everybody soft. That album is supposed to stir up how people feel. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. You just gotta be careful as a writer. With that whole crowd that worked on To Pimp A Butterfly, we’re all intellect. We all read. We read everything.
What that article did was open up To Pimp A Butterfly to the haters. Which was beautiful. I love that. It’s just who it brought out that had me like, aw, OK, these dick-riding ass, ignorant-ass, wannabe, IQ-of-a-pigeon, fake music motherfuckers. They gotta drink more orange juice and read the Bible, and leave us the fuck alone.
Kendrick has talked about possibly not performing songs from To Pimp A Butterfly after he finishes the run of Kunta’s Groove Sessions. Why?
We didn’t do that album for popular culture. We did that album for people who have no way out. We did that album for people who can’t even afford to go to the shows. We did an album for people who need hope. You don’t prostitute that.
People are taking it as a sign that Kendrick is going to start rolling out a new album sooner than we might’ve expected. What new stuff are you working on with him?
We’re not working. We’re just studying. Playing Sly Stone records, Miles Davis, and eating a lot of vegetables.
Is that a euphemism?
No, for real. And praying for a better day. We’re chilling.