Kendrick Lamar Breaks Down the Making of 'To Pimp a Butterfly'

'To Pimp a Butterfly' leads the Grammy Awards this year with 11 nominations.

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Complex Original

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As the 58th Grammy Awards approach, there's a lot of increasing attention on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly. Leading the awards this season with 11 total nominations, Kendrick crafted an album that was regarded by most as the album of the year and Kendrick's greatest work to date. In a new interview with the Grammys, the Compton rapper opens up about the history of the album. The greatest inspiration? His life-changing trip to South Africa. "I felt like I belonged in Africa. 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."

Going even deeper, he says he wanted the album to reflect "all complexions of black women." He continues, "There's a separation between the light and the dark skin because it's just in our nature to do so, but we're all black. This concept came from South Africa and I saw all these different colors speaking a beautiful language." With a broadened world view, Kendrick set out to make the album he had always wanted to create. "I wanted to do a record like this on my debut album but I wasn't confident enough." 

The result was an album succinctly captured by the album's title. "The title grasped the entire concept of the record. [I wanted to] break down the idea of being pimped in the industry, in the community and out of all the knowledge that you thought you had known, then discovering new life and wanting to share it."

Kendrick explains that a funky beat from Flying Lotus was never originally intended for him. "I was on tour with Kanye [West] and I had Flying Lotus with me because I wanted to work on the bus studio," says Kendrick. "He would make beats and it was one particular beat that he forgot to play. He skipped it but I heard about three seconds of it and I asked him, 'What is that?' He said, "You don't know nothing about that. That's real funk. … You're not going to rap on that.' It was like a dare." After previously discussing it with Mass Appeal, he also reconfirms that Prince was almost on the album, but that it didn't end up happening because they ran out of time. "We got to a point where we were just talking in the studio and the more time that passed we realized we weren't recording anything. We just ran out of time, it's as simple as that."

The rapper also reveals what it was like transitioning into a "conscious rapper" or a rapper that discusses the issues. "I don't even know [if] that word conscious can only exist in one field of music. Everybody is conscious. That's a gift from God to put it in my heart to continue to talk about this because that's how I'm feeling at the moment. The message is bigger than the artist." That hardest part for Kendrick? Wrestling with the feeling of saving lives versus the guilt if he's doing enough for people in his hometown. "It was real uncomfortable because I was dealing with my own issues. I was making a transition from the lifestyle that I lived before to the one I have now. When you're onstage rapping and all these people are cheering for you, you actually feel like you're saving lives. But you aren't saving lives back home. It made me question if I am in the right place spreading my voice. 'Should I be back home sending this message or be on the road?' It put me in this space where I was in a little bit of a dilemma." Read the full interview with even more on the making of To Pimp a Butterfly from the album's co-producer, co-engineer, and more here. Be sure to catch Kendrick when he performs at the Grammy Awards Feb. 15 on CBS.

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