Grammys 2016: 10 Essential Artists Who Helped Kendrick Lamar Shape 'To Pimp a Butterfly'

Randall Roberts
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The To Pimp a Butterfly production credits illustrate its communal spirit.

When Kendrick Lamar arrives at the Grammy Awards to accept applause for his album of the year-nominated To Pimp a Butterfly, the Compton-born rapper, lyricist and producer will be representing not only himself and his city: He’ll also be carrying a community’s worth of creators who contributed to his platinum-selling album.

The To Pimp a Butterfly production credits illustrate its communal spirit. Unlike the scant four credited contributors on fellow nominees Traveller by Chris Stapleton and the Alabama Shakes’ Sound and Color, To Pimp a Butterfly lists nearly three dozen collaborators. The album features just as many acoustic musicians playing strings, woodwind, brass, keyboards and percussion. A choir’s worth of vocalists add human texture throughout.

It’s those resonant tones coupled with Lamar’s phrasing and lyricism that have drawn both critical kudos and commercial success. Even President Barack Obama praised To Pimp a Butterfly and the artist, going so far as to host him at the White House. To top it off, Lamar is nominated for 11 Grammys, seven of them for music from To Pimp a Butterfly. In addition to the album of the year and rap album nominations, Lamar’s incendiary “Alright” is up for song of the year, rap song, rap performance and music video.

Below are a number of the essential musicians, many either born or based in Southern California, who worked on Lamar’s landmark studio album.

James Fauntleroy. With a regal name that suggests British aristocracy, the Inglewood-born artist has helped write hits for Rihanna (six songs from “Rated R”), Justin Timberlake (“Pusher Love Girl”), Jordin Sparks (“No Air”) and Chris Brown (“Superhuman”). On To Pimp a Butterfly, Fauntleroy helped write and sing “How Much a Dollar Cost.”

Flying Lotus. A Grammy nominee himself in the dance recording category, the Los Angeles beat producer served as a prime connector on To Pimp a Butterfly. The artist, born Steven Ellison, not only produced the album’s tone-setting first track but helped connect Lamar with contributors Thundercat and Kamasi Washington. Most notable, though, is the uncredited Lotus influence that informs much of To Pimp a Butterfly. A strong undercurrent of his productions over the past decade mixing beat music and cosmic jazz permeates the album.

Robert Glasper. The Texas-born, New York-trained jazz pianist plays on a number of the 16 tracks on To Pimp a Butterfly. The artist, whose work with his trio as well as the R&B-tilted Robert Glasper Experiment has earned him a devoted following, plays keyboards on Lamar’s tracks “The Blacker the Berry,” “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” and “These Walls,” among others.

Lalah Hathaway. The fellow Grammy nominee has been on a roll. At last year’s Grammys Hathaway and collaborators Glasper and Malcolm-Jamal Warner won a traditional R&B performance trophy for the song “Jesus Children.” This year Hathaway, the daughter of soul singer Donny Hathaway, is nominated again in the category for her song “Little Ghetto Boy.” On Butterfly, her ethereal voice is the centerpiece of the smooth jazz breakdown that concludes “The Blacker the Berry.”

Terrace Martin. By the time he was in his teens, the prodigal multi-instrumentalist had won the respect of jazz masters and at least one late-night talk show host. Martin earned a scholarship and his first professional horn from Jay Leno, and before graduating high school Martin had already played with Snoop Dogg and Puff Daddy. A decade later Martin is all over To Pimp a Butterfly, punctuating tracks with his primary instrument, saxophone, while also chiming in with keyboards and beats.

Sounwave. As a member of the Digi+Phonics production team (with Taebeast, Dave Free and Willie B), producer Mark “Sounwave” Spears has helped track hits by fellow Top Dawg signees Schoolboy Q, Isaiah Rashad, SZA, Jay Rock and Ab-Soul. Each possesses deep Los Angeles knowledge, but Sounwave’s tracks stand out on To Pimp a Butterfly. “King Kunta,” for example, is built around the producer’s reworking of the beat from “Get Nekkid” by the late Compton rapper Mausberg, who in 2000 was killed during a robbery at age 21. Like Sounwave’s best known co-production, for Lamar’s “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “King Kunta” has quickly become a Los Angeles anthem.

SZA. The lone female among the Top Dawg Entertainment’s current roster, the St. Louis-born vocalist offers a necessary counterpoint on a few Butterfly tracks. Best known of late for her contributions on “Consideration,” from Rihanna’s new album, “Anti,” SZA has been working on her own full-length debut for the past few years. In the interim, the artist born Solana Rowe has helped co-write hits for Nicki Minaj and Travis Scott.

Thundercat. If you listen close enough, L.A. bassist and producer Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner’s robo-funk lines are probably rumbling in somewhere outside your window right now. The ubiquitous artist’s fingerprints are all over the new sound of the city. In addition to his excellent solo work across albums and EPs, the charismatic bassist has collaborated with beat producer Flying Lotus, jazz bandleader and composer Kamasi Washington and hardcore punk band Suicidal Tendencies.

Kamasi Washington. Although saxophonist Martin occupies much of the horn space on To Pimp a Butterfly, his Los Angeles peer Washington makes his mark during “U.” The free-form cosmic jazz jam gathers the two players, both graduates of Roosevelt High School, for a sax duet as Lamar throws a verbal tantrum. Washington, who also helped arrange the strings throughout “Butterfly,” had his own breakout year. His three-disc debut album The Epic (released on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder label) upended the contemporary jazz world, helping to direct its focus on the energy burning on the West Coast.

Anna Wise. Long a secret weapon on underground Los Angeles beat projects, the artist has added her voice to work by Low End Theory-linked producers including Nobody, Teebs and MNDSGN. As half of the duo Sonnymoon, Wise has issued tracks on the respected local label Plug Research. Her credits on five To Pimp a Butterfly songs will likely further her ascent. That’s especially true of that strange hook on “Institutionalized,” in which she and vocalist Bilal sing, “If I was the president/ I’d pay my mama’s rent/ Free my homies and them/ Bulletproof my Chevy doors.”





The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.