Interview: Bilal Rejects "Neo-Soul," Says Kendrick Lamar's 'To Pimp a Butterfly' Is Jazz

"I’ve never really considered myself neo-soul."

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Complex Original

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An album as layered and intricately constructed as Kendrick Lamar's latest is, inevitably, a team effort. In studio sessions throughout the past year, Kendrick assembled a veteran crew of jazz maestros, soul singers, and funk legends to produce To Pimp A Butterfly, a work of violent introspection that doubles as an ambitious blueprint of black music. There are elements of D'Angelo's Black MessiahCommon's Electric Circus, DJ Quik, Marvin Gaye, and even whispers of Michael Jackson.

Many fans and critics have taken to regarding To Pimp a Butterfly as a '90s "neo-soul" throwback. Singer Bilal, whose vocals are featured on "Institutionalized," "These Walls," and all throughout Butterfly, argues that Kendrick's influences and ambitions are deeper than rap and R&B. Kendrick Lamar, he argues, is jazz, funk, drama, and every performative genre in between. The same could be said of Bilal, who sat down with us to talk about his studio sessions with Kendrick, his latest work with Robert Glasper and Adrian Younge, and how To Pimp a Butterfly came together.

Interview by Justin Charity (@brothernumpsa)

You’re credited on two tracks, but your vocals are all over To Pimp a Butterfly. How long were you working on the album?

Just a few sessions. Three or four. A few months ago I got a call from Kendrick to go out to L.A., and I worked with him for a few days out there. Then we did The Colbert Report, and I worked a little bit with him [in New York].

Who else was kicking around the studio during these sessions?

There’s his core group, and his one engineer who’s worked on all of his projects. So, his core cast, plus Terrace Martin, Sounwave, Thundercat; they were always in the studio with him.

You initially got the call from Kendrick, but was it one of those guys who roped you into the project? 

I saw Kendrick a while back, and he told me he liked my music, and I told him I liked his music.

How long ago?

About a year and a half ago.

Had you heard good kid by that time? 

Yeah, and even his record before good kid.

I know (“Institutionalized” producer”) Tommy Black had expressed interest in working with you a few years back. Had you linked up with him before you started working with Kendrick on Butterfly

Nah. It was Kendrick who reached out, because he had my contact information by that point. Once I got into the studio with Kendrick, it was just him hitting me on the phone to work. He was very hands on with the project.

I take it you’ve spent time listening to the full project now that it’s out. What’s your experience with the album just as a fan, and as a musician? 

I love it. It’s very brave, the stuff he’s talking about and the music in general. He’s making a lot of statements. 

My colleague Eddy and I were talking about your album Airtight’s Revenge, from 2010. You’re a neo-soul artist, but Airtight’s Revenge is not a straightforward neo-soul album. It has very ambitious, quirky, bold elements in its production, in the same sense that you wouldn’t just describe Robert Glasper as neo-soul. It’s some funky, different shit. When you’re listening to this Kendrick album, what genre is it to you?

First of all, I’ve never really considered myself neo-soul. I don’t cling to any titles or cadences in my walk of music or creation. This is soul music. It’s black music, because I’m black. There’s so many different elements inside of it, and I’ve always grabbed from a lot of different styles. It’s a mash-up, really. I’m a jazz musician. That’s what I went to school for. With the Kendrick album, I don’t think it’s neo-soul so much as it’s high-level jazz. He’s got Thundercat, Terrace, he’s even got Rob [Glasper] on the album, and I’d already know him from jamming out on some jazz stuff. I went to school with Rob [in ’98, ’99], and I met Terrace around that time when we came out to L.A. touring with Erykah Badu; we linked up with Terrace, and he was playing jazz. He’s not just an ill producer, he’s an ill saxophonist and jazz musician. 

With the Kendrick album, I don’t think it’s neo-soul so much as it’s high-level jazz.

Do you think critics misuse the term “neo-soul”? 

I’d call us the new generation of soul cats, but that’s talking about the new generation of soul. What we’re doing is not “new” soul. I know what I’m doing is not “neo-”. I don’t really like [that term]. Do you classify George Clinton’s music as soul music? Because I use a lot of that, and people would classify him as funk. It’s just kind of confusing. I want to make music that is going to confuse the computer.

Is Kendrick a soul artist? Or is he a rapper? 

He’s an artist. You hear all kinds of elements of drama, and it’s almost like you’re watching a movie, the way he can change characters. It’s performance art on a record. He’s not just your typical rhymer. He’s taking on characters, he has a visionary perspective in how he approaches his music. Every [project] is like a book or a movie; a complete, epic presentation. An essential theme, and you’re being told a story. It’s a body of work. You get it once you listen to the whole thing. 

He’s got very intense levels of energy on this album. When I listen to “u,” for instance, I feel like that song is attacking me. During your sessions with Kendrick, what was your initial reaction to seeing these levels of energy and experimentation?

I was already a fan of his music, so I could already tell. Anybody that’s making music, they progress and get better. When I knew that he had Thundercat and all of these other cats that I love [working with him], it didn’t surprise me. When you’re around those kind of cats, and everybody is on that kind of wavelength, pushing the envelope, that’s what Kendrick has done. He surrounded himself with cats that are pushing him, and he’s pushing the envelope with the things that he creates. 

After the second time I listened through the album, I went back and listened to Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man soundtrack. Musically Trouble Man and Butterfly have a sort of dialectic or resonance with each other. Are there any albums or artists that are particularly influential to the sound of To Pimp a Butterfly?

It definitely has the Parliament presentation and drama. It’s got some soulful Scarface drama and dark tales. It’s got elements of OutKast. All the funky cats. The first thing that hit me is that it’s mad cinematic, and I like records like that, like The Chronic. It’s a proper West Coast album.

After all these sessions with Kendrick, who are you going to work with on your next project?

I’m putting out a record in June with Adrian Younge on E1. [The Butterfly sessions] came while I was in the middle of finishing that. I love to work with these cats, and I’m pretty sure I’ll work with them in the future. For now, I’m just finishing up my current project. 

Do you have a title?

In Another Life.

Have you been working with Glasper since Black Radio 2?

I just did something with Robert a few weeks ago, while he’s working on a Miles Davis movie with Don Cheadle. They're doing a whole remix album.

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