Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly: Beyond Hip Hop, Beyond Genre

It would be hard to find anybody who would call Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly anything but a hip hop album. Notable for its lyrical, musical, technical, and conceptual brilliance, Butterfly is a profound expression of and meditation on the African American experience in the context of a nation plagued by anti-black racism. It is also an opportunity to see and hear what an “intersection between jazz and hip hop” sounds like in a frame of reference that everybody knows—hip hop—and how when applied to the album, the trope of the intersection breaks down to the point of losing meaning and significance.

Butterfly features a roster of musicians associated with numerous genres; in this way one could think of it as an “intersection” album. Thundercat appears throughout, as do jazz musicians such as Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, and Ambrose Akimusire. Snoop Dogg and Rapsody contribute guest verses and neo-soul/r&b singers Bilal, Lalah Hathaway, and SZA sing background vocals. The roster of producers—who draw on samples ranging from Fela Kuti and the Isley Brothers to Sufjan Stevens—includes Pharrell Williams, Flying Lotus, and Knxledge.

f1efb3f4-9a6d-4f78-8ca8-594ab646d198-bestSizeAvailableWhile the diverse set of personnel might suggest that Butterfly would sound like an amalgamation of various genres the opposite is true, as it is squarely in the hip hop tradition. But despite its unquestionable status as a hip hop record, it transcends the label by virtue of the way Lamar and his collaborators draw on the whole of black popular music from the last one hundred years. Rather than a conscious mixing or intersection of genres, Butterfly—in all of its jazz, blues, funk, r&b, soul, reggae, and rock influences—is quintessentially black music. It does not exist within an either/or logic in which it can be considered either hip hop and jazz or some intersection of the two. Its aesthetic operates through a both/and logic in which it exists as multiple things at once and cannot be constrained by genre boundaries. The clearest example of Butterfly existing simultaneously as hip hop and jazz is seen in the musical approach and style, as well as the album’s social commentary.

Butterfly‘s instrumental parts incorporate a number of jazz influences. Some of this is due to the simple presence of jazz musicians; other instances, the influence is more audibly overt. “For Free” couldn’t be much more of a jazz song: the drums and bass play a traditional medium-uptempo swing feel, Robert Glasper lays down straight-ahead jazz chords on the piano which are reminiscent of those played by John Coltrane’s pianist McCoy Tyner, and Lamar is more jazz singer than rapper. On “u” saxophonists Terrace Martin and Kamasi Washington weave in and out of the bass and synthesizer and play background lines behind Lamar similar to what you might hear behind a jazz singer. And while the keyboard parts throughout the album don’t necessarily sound like jazz, they follow in the footsteps of jazz fusion keyboard innovators like Joe Zawinul and Lonnie Liston Smith.

But it’s not just Butterfly‘s instrumental elements that place it in the jazz aesthetic. In particular, the way Lamar phrases his words, accents certain syllables, and creates the rhythmic structure of his lines is a continuation of the ways in which jazz musicians performed their melodies. In other words, Lamar swings. He frequently syncopates his lines, meaning that he accents words or syllables on beats that would not normally be accented. This creates an exciting and angular feeling; it’s the same effect that Thelonious Monk generated when he would stab a piano key in such an unusual place that it stung.

To swing, Lamar takes the second syllable of a two-syllable pair and places it just behind the beat rather than right on it. The difference between swung and straight rhythms is apparent on the opening track, “Wesley’s Theory,” where Lamar alternates between the two. For most of the track he swings, but goes to a brief straight section for contrast (“I know your kind that’s why I’m kind/don’t have receipts oh man, that’s fine/pay me later, wear those gators, cliché and say, fuck your haters”). The next line (“I can see the borrow in you/I can see the dollar in you/little white lies with a snow white collar in you . . . “), he goes back to swinging the rhythm, which he does throughout the bulk of the album. Once you hear how hard he swings, it’s almost impossible not to imagine him fronting a 1950s bebop combo, saxophone in hand, blowing chorus after chorus and whipping the crowd into a frenzy.

On “Momma” Lamar utilizes several practices that are central to jazz. Knxwledge’s beat moves along at a slow ballad tempo and despite his more relaxed delivery, Lamar raps at a faster clip than the tempo might call for. In other words, he raps in double time to the ballad tempo just like beboppers do, charging and careening, unfurling rapid, tumbling lines over a slow beat. He also mixes up where he places three syllable words in a single phrase, varying their placement in each successive phrase. It’s eerily reminiscent of how John Coltrane would take the same rhythmic figure and shift its position around as he experimented with every possible permutation of mixing two-note and three-note figures. Lamar also varies the length of his lines and phrases, and often doesn’t start or stop them in the same place twice. Miles Davis’ group in the mid-1960s turned this technique into an art form, and Lamar’s mastery of it gives the music a continual forward motion and generates interest.

Lamar’s combination of syncopation, swing feel, and other methods he shares with jazz musicians explains why Butterfly‘s jazz musicians do not sound out of place; Lamar and his bandmates all come from the same larger musical world and speak the same language. In fact, when Lamar spits out rapid fire words it’s not hard to imagine that he (along with his peers like Earl Sweatshirt and Freddie Gibbs) is what Charlie Parker might have sounded like had he been a rapper.

In addition to the commonality Lamar’s flow shares with jazz phrasing and rhythm, his lyrical content slots right in with jazz’s history of social critique. From Sonny Rollins’ 1958 Freedom Suite (1958) and Max Roach’s 1960 We Insist!: Freedom Now Suite (1960) to Wynton Marsalis’ Blood on the Fields (1997) and Wadada Leo Smith’s Ten Freedom Summers (2012), jazz has a long and rich tradition of calling out racism, working for social justice, and celebrating black culture in the face of oppression. Throughout Butterfly Lamar comments on the black urban experience, structural racism, violence, and myriad other social conditions. On “The Blacker the Berry”—a phrase that itself celebrates blackness—Lamar speaks to racist white society, rapping:

“I mean it’s evident I’m irrelevant to society
That’s what you’re telling me, penitentiary would only hire me
Curse me till I’m dead
Church me with your fake prophesizin’ that I’mma be another slave in my head
Institutionalize manipulation and lies
Reciprocation of freedom only live in your eyes
You hate me don’t you?
I know you hate me just as much as you hate yourself

. . .

When I finish this if you listenin’ I’m sure you will agree
This plot is bigger than me, it’s generational hatred
It’s genocidism, it’s grimy, little justification
I’m African American, I’m African
I’m black as the heart of a fuckin’ Aryan
I’m black as the name of Tyrone and Darius
Excuse my French but fuck you, no fuck ya’ll
That’s as blunt as it gets
I know you hate me, don’t you?”

On his fiery refrain on “The Blacker the Berry” Jamaican dancehall star Assassin extends Lamar’s description of the racism he experiences in his everyday life to the experience of black people throughout the centuries of slavery and colonialism.

“I said they treat me like a slave, cah’ me black
Woi, we feel a whole heap of pain, cah’ we black
And man a say they put me in a chain, cah’ we black
Imagine now, big gold chain full of rocks
How you no see the whip, left scars pon’ me back
But now we have a big whip, parked pon’ the block
All them say we doomed from the start, cah’ we black
Remember this, every race start from the block, just remember that”

But his verse is also more than a reminder than the violence suffered pon’ black people cah’ they black; it’s also a testament to the resilience of black people to not only survive but to thrive: from being put in chains to wearing diamond encrusted ones; from feeling the lash of the whip to driving one.

Among the numerous examples of jazz’s critique of racism, slavery, and Jim Crow, “Strange Fruit,” made famous by Billie Holiday, may be the most well-known and powerful. Holiday’s performance is a haunting and disturbing evocation of the horror of lynching in the Jim Crow South.

“Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop”

In its depiction of the violent result of hate and the African American experience, “Strange Fruit” prefigures the similar critiques Lamar, Assassin, and scores of black musicians continue to make.

Butterfly‘s lyrical ties to blues and jazz are not limited to Lamar’s social commentary. While jazz is accepted as a high art form to be celebrated along the likes of Bach and Beethoven—it is, after all, America’s “classical music”—it also has a strong lyrical tradition whose language and imagery is more appropriate for a pool hall than a concert hall. Take for instance, these lyrics from “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” by the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith:

“I need a little sugar in my bowl
I need a little hot dog between my rolls
You getting’ different, I’ve been told
Make your finger, drop something in my bowl”

Or consider these song lyrics to “Winin’ Boy Blues,” by Jelly Roll Morton, who claimed to have invented jazz:

“I had that gal, I had her in the grass
I had that bitch, had her in the grass, yes baby
I had that bitch, had her in the grass,
One day she got scared and snake ran up her big ass
Yes I’m the winin’ boy, don’t deny my name”

Morton’s and Smith’s lyrics then, aren’t a far cry from Kendrick exclaiming on “King Kunta” that “Life ain’t nothin’ but a fat vagina” or on “For Free” that “This dick ain’t free . . . matter of fact it’s nine inches.” In this way, Lamar’s profanity, sexually explicit and occasionally misogynist lyrics aren’t a departure from the tradition of African American music. Like his blues and jazz forebears, Lamar captures the full human experience, from highbrow intellectual political critique to the pleasures and pain of humanity’s most intimate and visceral desires.

From Butterfly‘s social critique and virtuosic jazz saxophone playing to Lamar’s swing rhythmic feel, it could not exist as it is without jazz. Jazz is integral to the album’s aesthetic. Like the music of his peers and collaborators Flying Lotus and Thundercat, jazz isn’t one element that Lamar plugs in to his “main” musical style. For these musicians jazz is an inseparable and fundamental part of their musical DNA. The question isn’t: why would rappers work with jazz musicians and incorporate jazz into their music? The question is: why wouldn’t they? While it is entirely appropriate to call Butterfly a hip hop album, it’s much more than that what that genre label would indicate. It’s the continuation of a large, multifaceted, and dynamic musical and cultural tradition and an example of what poet and critic Amiri Baraka called “the changing same.” In other words, it carries the same aesthetic and cultural expression that all other forms of African American music have, regardless of style.

At the end of the day, To Pimp a Butterfly is best considered not as hip hop, but as the more capacious category of black music, which Baraka describes as “African in origin, African-American in its totality.” The album is bigger than any intersection of multiple genres or styles: it’s the musical expression of the social, political, and cultural life and experiences of African Americans. That expression takes color in myriad hues, from the bounce of P-Funk and the hip urban sophistication of bebop to the exuberance of gospel and the freestyle rapper’s virtuosic mastery of language. Kendrick Lamar makes black music that exists beyond genre and the possible intersections thereof. And to discuss it in terms of genre is not only inaccurate, but it limits the music’s potential to communicate and transform our lives.

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