The Musicians Behind Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’

kendrick lamar to pimp a butterfly cover

In an era where music releases are meticulously planned, Kendrick Lamar‘s To Pimp A Butterfly emerged almost as if by serendipity, mirroring the surprise drop of D’Angelo‘s Black Messiah and shaking the foundations of the music world.

Though the anticipation was palpable, the early release sent waves of excitement through the industry, revealing an album that was not just a collection of tracks but a cultural landmark. At the heart of this audacious project were the musicians Thundercat, Robert Glasper, Lalah Hathaway, Bilal, Kamasi Washington, Terrace Martin, and Ambrose Akinmusire, among others, whose contributions were pivotal yet represented only the beginning of a deep roster of talent that brought Lamar’s vision to life.

In the following sections, we will explore the unique contributions of each artist, shedding light on how their distinctive sounds and visionary approaches helped shape the album into the masterpiece it is recognized as today.

Thundercat (bass)

thundercat bass

On To Pimp A Butterfly, Thundercat (Stephen Bruner) brings his unparalleled bass skills to the forefront, particularly shining on tracks like “Wesley’s Theory” and “These Walls.”

Known for his ability to fuse R&B, jazz, and electronic music, Thundercat’s contributions are crucial, adding a unique depth and groove to the album.

In “Wesley’s Theory,” his funky bass lines set a vibrant tone that complements the song’s commentary on fame and societal expectations.

Meanwhile, “These Walls” benefits from his intricate play, which enhances the track’s introspective and sensual vibes.

Through his work on the album, Thundercat not only showcases his virtuosity but also reinforces the collaborative essence and innovative spirit of To Pimp A Butterfly.

Robert Glasper (piano & keyboard)

robert glasper

Robert Glasper‘s contribution to To Pimp A Butterfly is instrumental in weaving the album’s complex tapestry, with his expertise on the keys providing a backbone for its innovative sound.

Known for his groundbreaking album Black Radio, which merged jazz, R&B, and hip-hop, Glasper set a precedent for albums like To Pimp A Butterfly, offering a modern take on the Soulquarian era.

Glasper’s piano work is a cornerstone of the album, infusing it with a level of sophistication and depth that demands attentive listening.

His influence is felt across the record, but it’s his ability to guide the album’s formless structure that truly showcases his mastery, compelling listeners to engage deeply with the music.

Lalah Hathaway (vocals)

lalah hathaway

Lalah Hathaway, renowned for her extraordinary vocal talent and Grammy-winning collaboration with Snarky Puppy on Something, brings a profound depth to To Pimp A Butterfly.

Her ability to sing multiple notes simultaneously is just one example of her unique contribution to the music industry, a skill that has captivated audiences worldwide.

Hathaway’s vocals grace several tracks across the album, adding layers of emotional and sonic complexity.

Her song “On Your Own” finds new life on “Momma,” showcasing the seamless integration of her artistry into Kendrick Lamar’s narrative.

This sample, perhaps one of the easiest clearances for Lamar’s legal team, underscores the mutual respect and collaboration between the artists.

Through her involvement, Hathaway enriches the album’s exploration of personal and societal themes.

Her voice, both powerful and delicate, serves as a bridge between the diverse musical styles present on the album.

Bilal (vocals)


With his extraordinary versatility, Bilal becomes an integral part of To Pimp A Butterfly, weaving jazz, R&B, funk, and soul into the album’s fabric.

His voice, present across various tracks, adds a unique texture that complements the complex musical and thematic layers of the project.

His singing enriches the narrative, providing depth and resonance that align perfectly with Kendrick Lamar’s storytelling.

By navigating different genres with ease, he enhances the album’s exploration of critical themes, offering a sonic experience that’s both thought-provoking and harmonious.

Kamasi Washington (saxophone)

kamasi washington

Saxophonist Kamasi Washington‘s presence on To Pimp A Butterfly adds a profound layer of sonic depth and complexity, especially notable on tracks like “u,” where he engages in an evocative interplay with Terrace Martin.

The Inglewood native, just before announcing his ambitious project The Epic, contributed his virtuosic saxophone and string arrangements to the album, enriching its texture and emotional range.

Washington’s work, particularly on “u,” showcases his ability to convey raw emotion through his horn, contributing to the track’s intense and introspective nature.

This song, a critical centerpiece of the album, benefits from Washington’s abstract horn runs that complement its narrative, adding a dimension of authenticity and vulnerability.

Washington’s contributions underscore the album’s exploration of personal and societal themes, making his input indispensable to the project’s success and resonance.

Terrace Martin (saxophone & production)

terrace martin

Terrace Martin also elevates the album with his exceptional alto saxophone skills and production prowess, particularly leaving his mark on tracks like “The Blacker The Berry.”

His ability to blend jazz, funk, and hip-hop creates a soundscape that’s both rich and emotionally resonant.

Martin’s saxophone work is a highlight throughout the album, but it’s his contribution to “The Blacker The Berry” that stands out.

In this track, his saxophone transitions the song from intense verses to a conclusion that feels like emerging into warm sunlight, encapsulating the track’s themes of racial identity and self-reflection.

Returning to collaborate with Kendrick Lamar after their work on good kid, m.A.A.d city, Martin brought his deep understanding of jazz and funk, influenced by legends like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and John Coltrane.

His production on To Pimp A Butterfly is integral, not just in shaping its musical direction but in deepening its thematic explorations.

Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet)

ambrose akinmusire

Ambrose Akinmusire, a trumpeter known for crafting vivid musical narratives that command undivided attention, lends his distinctive touch to the closing moments of To Pimp A Butterfly.

His 2014 album, The Imagined Savior Is Far Easier To Paint, stands as a testament to his ability to weave complex stories through music, engaging listeners with a rich tapestry of characters and scenarios.

This narrative depth and emotional intensity find their way into Kendrick Lamar’s seminal work, albeit in a nuanced cameo that caps off the album’s exploration of thematic and sonic frontiers.

While Josef Leimberg assumes the primary role of trumpeter across the majority of the album, it is Akinmusire’s contribution to the final track that leaves a lasting impression.

His trumpet not only punctuates the album’s conclusion but also encapsulates the journey Lamar has guided his audience through.

Akinmusire’s playing, characterized by its lyrical beauty and profound sense of storytelling, elevates the track, infusing it with a sense of closure and reflection that is both poignant and uplifting.

Ronald Bruner Jr. (drums)

ronald bruner jr

Ronald Bruner Jr., a Grammy-award winning drummer celebrated for his dynamic range and versatility, brings his prodigious talents to To Pimp A Butterfly, further enriching its intricate musical landscape.

With a career that spans genres and generations, Bruner has shared stages with jazz luminaries such as Stanley Clarke, Dianne Reeves, and Clark Terry, as well as artists from the realms of punk and R&B like Suicidal Tendencies and Raphael Saadiq.

His collaboration with his brother, Stephen Bruner, better known as Thundercat, underscores a familial legacy of musical innovation and excellence that he carries into his work with Kendrick Lamar.

Bruner’s drumming on the album is a masterclass in rhythm and texture, providing not just a backbone for the complex arrangements, but also a narrative force in its own right.

His ability to navigate between the nuanced demands of jazz, the raw energy of punk, and the soulful grooves of R&B allows him to contribute a unique sonic depth to the project.

The inclusion of Ronald Bruner Jr. in To Pimp A Butterfly is a testament to the album’s ambitious vision, one that seeks to blur the lines between genres and eras.

Bruner’s drumming is integral to the album’s success, offering listeners a rhythmic experience that is as thought-provoking as it is visceral.

Robert “Sput” Searight (drums)

robert sput searight

Robert “Sput” Searight, celebrated for his dynamic drumming with Snarky Puppy, brings an explosive energy to To Pimp A Butterfly, particularly on tracks like “For Free” and “Hood Politics.”

Known for his Grammy-winning work alongside Lalah Hathaway and Snarky Puppy, Sput’s contribution to Kendrick Lamar’s album is both vibrant and vital.

On “For Free,” Sput’s drumming is not just rhythmically intricate; it’s a declaration of freedom and defiance, perfectly complementing the track’s spirited critique of materialism and exploitation.

Meanwhile, “Hood Politics” benefits from his adeptness at blending complex rhythms with the track’s narrative depth, enhancing its commentary on societal and political issues.

Sput’s involvement in the album underscores the seamless fusion of jazz sensibilities with hip-hop, elevating the musical conversation to new heights with his ability to inject both precision and spontaneity into his performances.

Keith Askey (guitar)

keith askey

Keith Askey infuses To Pimp A Butterfly with his rich guitar work, drawing from his rich background with the Virginia-based soul/R&B collective, Butcher Brown.

Garnering initial acclaim for their collaboration with trumpeter Nicholas Payton on Numbers, Butcher Brown’s fusion of jazz, funk, and R&B elements has positioned Askey as a formidable talent in the industry.

His guitar on the album not only complements its lush, multi-layered soundscapes but also contributes to its deep emotional resonance and thematic complexity.

Reflecting on the experience, Askey expresses admiration for Kendrick Lamar’s relentless dedication and humility throughout the creative process.

“Working with Kendrick was awesome,” he shares, emphasizing the artist’s incredible work ethic and absence of ego.

Chris Smith (bass)

Chris Smith, an emerging talent in the world of jazz bass, brings a fresh vibrancy to To Pimp A Butterfly, particularly shining on tracks like “i.”

Collaborating alongside luminaries such as Thundercat and his former Butcher Brown bandmate Keith Askey, Smith’s bass lines are a testament to his versatility and deep musical intuition.

His ability to weave together intricate rhythms and melodies adds a foundational depth to the album, anchoring its expansive soundscape with a palpable sense of groove and fluidity.

Smith’s contributions to “i” exemplify his skill in complementing and enhancing the song’s uplifting message and energetic vibe.

Working with a roster of jazz’s finest has honed his ability to adapt and resonate within a variety of musical contexts, making his bass work integral to the track’s success.

His synergy with other musicians on the album, particularly in his interplay with Thundercat’s virtuosic bass and Askey’s soulful guitar, highlights a dynamic conversation between instruments that enriches the album’s auditory experience.

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