Kendrick Lamar‘s untitled unmastered project, which dropped late last week, is rather unusual in the fast-paced, novelty-centric world of hip-hop. A collection of cuts from the vault, supposedly brought to fans by the public pleas of LeBron James, left in their mostly unvarnished form — more of an archive than an album.
Thundercat on How Kendrick Lamar’s New Project ‘Completes the Sentence’ of ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’
To commemorate the occasion, Billboard spoke with one of Lamar’s closest collaborators, Terrace Martin, about what went on behind-the-scenes in the making of To Pimp a Butterfly as well as the latest release.
Read part one of the interview below:
When did you first hear about the project?
I had heard something about it Thursday morning. There was word around the camp like, “Yo, we’re about to drop the secrets.” I always called them the secrets. I’m like, “What you mean?” And [Sounwave] was like, “We’re about to drop the secrets, we’re about to drop the blueprints.” I was like, “When?”, and he was like, “Probably in a few months, I don’t know — it’s just an idea.” And I woke up to all these text messages saying, “This is crazy!” So I was like, “What the f— happened?” I look online, and I was like, “These motherf—ers let the secrets out! No! You gave the blueprints to the other guys!” All jokes aside, that’s literally how I found out about it.
All the saxophone is you right?
Yeah — all these were recorded before Kamasi [Washington] and Robert [Glasper] even came into the fold. On “untitled 05,” I’m playing saxophone, I co-produced it, and I played piano on it. I guess we were cutting so many records, and Robert Glasper was around cutting records too, that he must have rubbed off on me, because he and I both thought that it was him on that song when the project came out yesterday. Kendrick had to remind me, “No, that’s you playing piano. You was drunk that night.”
That’s how in-sync that whole crew was through TPAB — we started walking alike, talking alike, playing alike, eating alike. We were like Voltron: one thing, one force. That’s one thing you hear on this record — how much of a brotherhood we did have. I had forgotten about all this shit, it was just a blur of good music with my brothers. Just hearing these things again has been a huge treat for me. That’s what I call these the secrets — they were the blueprints of where we were aiming to go. You guys are getting a picture of what we saw first. When you listen to “Get Top on the phone” [“untitled 02”], you hear the dark side. Then you hear a record like “Alright,” and that’s the light side. That’s the blueprint of the jazz over the trap energy. Then we cut the other shit.
What is it like going back through the old stuff?
I talked to Kendrick this morning — we learned something from that. He hadn’t heard them records in forever, either. So I think we’ve all learned that sometimes, it’s OK to go back to the blueprint, just to see where you’ve been. You can take elements from there, or realize that you don’t want to go back to the same place. It’s like a relationship — sometimes when you revisit an old girlfriend, and then you’ll realize why you should stay with her — or you’ll realize why you left her! Usually I realize why I left them. Or you’re like, “You know what? I like you baby, I’m gonna spend another 2 weeks with you” [laughs].
These were songs that we once felt strongly about — we didn’t realize that we should have felt real strongly about them, because they’re good songs. We had moved on. The thing is, after we create and the record’s out, it’s no longer ours. It’s everybody else’s. We’re on to the next page — searching for a new sound, searching to be better, trying to greater. For us, backtracking becomes a weird thing. But we realized doing this, “Wow, maybe we should have put these songs out earlier!” They weren’t throwaways, they were motifs and ideas. They were dealt with with the same intensity that everything was dealt with — there’s no medium way we deal with the art. There’s no light way. We either go in heavy, or we don’t go the f— in. We’re not going to say we’re artists, and play with it like a lot of you motherf—ers do. “We need rest…” — no, we’ve got a responsibility!
If you had to guess, how much more stuff like this is there?
Aw man, I don’t know. I forgot about this shit! We recorded everyday. When we know we’re about to be creative, [Kendrick] kept a mic in the control room in the studio, so we can hum ideas and shout ideas. I mean you gotta understand, we never stopped working. He hasn’t even toured TPAB, because we stay in the studio. There are a few more things that were cut live at the Village Studios [in Los Angeles] that I don’t know if the world will ever hear because I don’t know who has those files…maybe Top [Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith].
Did Kendrick say anything else?
Right when I get deep about the project in a text, he’ll just stop responding until I see him the next day. He says what he has to, and it’s over. You’ll find out more about him in the studio or…you just gotta catch that dude. He’s a bunch of different cats, and that’s why that music is like that: the fun side, the light side, the dark side, all different sides. He knows how to play the different sides of his life, to convey the message through his art. I think having a person going through things like that in his head…the level of communication can be strange sometimes with these motherf—ers [laughs].
What was your guys’ performance at the Grammys like for you?
The crazy thing about the Grammys is right when the stage opened up, and I’m looking down in the crowd, the first person I see to the left of me is Herbie Hancock. Out of all these people, I see him. That was the moment I was like, “We have a responsibility.” That whole day was intense, man. That was like, going to take — not your final exams, because it wasn’t like school at all. It was like, going to Rome, to fight in the Coliseum! To say what you’ve got to say about peace and love and shit! That was the hype and intensity of the Grammys to us — that we finally get to say, “Love each other,” on this huge platform.
Have you been in the studio with Kendrick recently? Or have you been focusing on your own stuff?
I’m always doing my own stuff, but the thing about working with Kendrick is a lot of my creative energy comes from doing my own thing, even while I’m working with him. I want to give myself the best I can, but usually what ends up happening is that Kendrick ends up hearing what I want to give myself, and says, “I want that!” But you know what? He’s the guy — that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to give the best to the guy. Whoever’s up next, whoever has the torch, you’re supposed to give your best to them, because when they work, everything else works. If Kendrick wants something amazing, and he felt like what I did was that, he can have it. I’ll come up with another song.
So I was able to work on TPAB and Velvet Portraits [Martin’s upcoming album] at the same time — I took a little time off Velvet Portraits to really finish TPAB, then the day it came out, I got back on Velvet Portraits and finished everything.
We just spend a lot of time in the studio right now talking and watching old movie clips and eating good food, surfing the Internet, talking about shoes and different cool colognes, mind exercises…so we haven’t really gotten down to the music part. The music part is not the difficult part. The difficult part is to get back on one accord, and really becoming one person. That’s the part that takes hanging and a relationship, because our music is such a testimony and such a spiritual thing — like gospel music.
We take that seriously. We don’t just come into the studio like, “We got an idea! Let’s do an idea!” Nah. It’s more like, “How are you doing? How’s your girl doing? How’s the wife doing? How’s your mom doing? Y’all see the football game?” Then it’s like, “Wait a minute, whoa. Another black kid got killed for no reason?” All those emotions of being happy, and then seeing that shit on TV. Then it goes into a quiet time, just thanking the creator to be able to create and help this not happen again. Then it goes into, “Let’s go into the studio room.” Whatever happens after that, we kind of black out — it comes out being To Pimp A Butterfly.
Terrace Martin is releasing his next studio album, Velvet Portraits, on April 1 via his own Sounds of Crenshaw label in partnership with Ropeadope Records. It is available for preorder on iTunes.