Kendrick Lamar Collaborator Bilal on 'To Pimp a Butterfly': 'A Lot of This Is Kendrick's Genius'

Fabrice Coton
Bilal photographed in Paris in 2014.

The singer talks to Billboard about channeling Parliament for a "fuller sound" on the just-released album.

A popular guest vocalist whose credits range from Common to Kimbra, Bilal is featured on two songs from Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly ("Institutionalized," "These Walls") and also pops up as a backing vocalist on several other tracks, including "Hood Politics."

Kendrick Lamar's 'To Pimp a Butterfly' Challenges & Rewards: Album Review

The singer/songwriter behind his own critically acclaimed album, 2013's A Love Surreal (eOne Music), Bilal riffs on his first-time collaboration with Lamar.

How the collaboration came about:
I met Kendrick coming out of a rehearsal studio in New York a few years back and talked about working with him. [Producers] Thundercat and Terrace Martin … I've known those cats for years and have worked with Thunder on a lot of other projects.

His multiple appearances on the album:
I know I worked on a ton of songs when we were together in the studio. But I didn't know what was what. While we were in there, Kendrick said, "I want you to be on a lot of the records." I thought he was just saying that. [Laughs] Sometimes when you do songs, they don't always make the final cut. But wow, this is crazy and cool.

The creative process:
A lot of this is Kendrick's genius. He kept speaking about having a big sound, a Parliament type of thing. And I'm all about that because George Clinton is my favorite artist. For a lot of the material, Kendrick had a sketch idea of what he wanted. He would sing out the melody and some of the words, and I would just interpret what he was telling me. On the songs where I added backing vocals, some of it was freestyle; just adding color to make it a fuller sound.

Why Butterfly resonates:
It's a different style than what's going on. Kendrick brings musicians to light on this project, letting Thundercat, Terrace and the others stretch out. That's very good for music as he marries a lot of sounds together. Message-wise, he's really no-holds-barred about what he says. As far as he was willing to dig musically, he also did that lyrically: just going totally against the grain. It's thought-provoking -- and I miss that in music.


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