Ahead of its 11 GRAMMY nominations, we look back at the many South African influences on Kendrick Lamar's classic album.
To Pimp A Butterfly album cover.
Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly was hailed as a classic as soon as it dropped. The 16-song record follows the Compton rapper through several poignant explorations of race issues and social injustice, backed by ambitious jazz, retro funk & soul production.
One thing not many people are aware of though, is its inspiration.
Kendrick’s mentioned that his first trip to Africa— a 2014 visit to South Africa during which he travelled to Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town—was a huge influence on TPAB.
Ahead of the album’s 11 GRAMMY nominations this weekend, including nods for Album Of The Year and Best Rap Album, we look back at the South African influences on K. Dot’s unparalleled album and musical style.
“I Felt Like I Belonged In Africa”
“I remember he took a trip to Africa and something in his mind just clicked. For me, that's when this album really started” —Sounwave, To Pimp A Butterfly co-producer.
In a new interview with the GRAMMYs, Kendrick and his TPAB collaborators go off on the effect the 2014 trip to South Africa had on the album.
“I felt like I belonged in Africa,” says Lamar. “I saw all the things that I wasn't taught. Probably one of the hardest things to do is put [together] a concept on how beautiful a place can be, and tell a person this while they're still in the ghettos of Compton. I wanted to put that experience in the music.”
“The idea was to make a record that reflected all complexions of black women. There's a separation between the light and the dark skin because it's just in our nature to do so, but we're all black. This concept came from South Africa and I saw all these different colors speaking a beautiful language.”
The Ghost of Mandela
“You wanna love like Nelson, you wanna be like Nelson. You wanna walk in in his shoes but you peace-making seldom”
TPAB’s 12-minute-long closing track “Mortal Man” sees Kendrick dropping several mentions and aspirations towards the spirit of Nelson Mandela.
The track also samples a drum pattern from Fela Kuti‘s “I No Get Eye for Back,” off 1975’s Alagbon Close. The direct sample comes from South Carolina tenor saxophonist Houston Person’s 1977 cover of the Fela track.
“The ghost of Mandela, hope my flows they propel it”
A Black Lives Matter Anthem Inspired By South Africa
In an interview with MTV, Kendrick reveals that “Alright”—a song that’s become an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement and sang across protests against police killings of blacks—was also inspired by his time in South Africa.
The “We Gon’ Be Alright” chant was sparked from witnessing people’s struggles in the country. "They struggle ten times harder and were raised crazier than... I was," Kendrick mentions. "Going out there really inspired me. I wrote a lot of records out there. Just going to South Africa and being able to move around out there like I did. That was a turning point."”
“How Much A Rand Cost”
TPAB’s “How Much A Dollar Cost” also follows a “true story” set in South Africa, he tells MTV. In it, a homeless man “who only [speaks] Zulu” asks him for 10 rand. Kendrick denies him thinking he’s looking for drug or booze money. Then, after a wave of guilt and rapping bars about the selfishness of his success, the homeless man reveals himself to be God.
“Untitled 2” & Cape Town
And finally, last month, to cement the influence of South Africa on his current sound, Kendrick shouted out “Cape Town” several times during his performance of unreleased track “Untitled 2” on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.