For certain older jazz heads thinking of their beloved genre, the image that comes to mind is of custom Italian suits and smoke billowing through cramped clubs. There’s likely a guy with an instrument in the foreground, behind him is another guy keeping pace on a drum kit. For some jazz listeners, the music should’ve stayed here — stuck somewhere between the 1940s and ’50s, before Miles Davis plugged in his trumpet, and before John Coltrane blew his sax to summon God. To them, pianist Herbie Hancock should’ve left funk to hippies like Sly Stone, and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders needed to cool it with the “elephant shrieks.”
It’s not just jazz purists who resist change; across all genres, the struggle between tradition and the future has been unfolding in regular, repeating cycles. ’90s hip-hop is considered the “golden era,” when lyricists like Nas, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Jay-Z came of age, and rap after that isn’t seen as comparable. There’s this notion that “the music died after us,” and those flare-ups arise when some younger rapper doesn’t know Biggie lyrics, or he thinks rap began with the Lil’s and Yung’s. At every turn in music, there are people who resist change, but you can’t bend culture by playing it safe.
So it’s not that jazz purists didn’t want the music to evolve, it’s that the new thing was quite different from the old — less reverent, less familiar, beholden to a new set of rules or priorities. Albums like Davis’ Bitches Brew and Hancock’s Head Hunters blended jazz with rock and funk, paving the way for future anarchists like trumpeter Roy Hargrove and pianist Robert Glasper to work at the points where jazz met conscious hip-hop, neo-soul, and alt-rock. They ascended at a time when jazz wasn’t so popular in mainstream music: Traces of it could be heard in the early work of The Roots, and in sampled form on records by A Tribe Called Quest and Digable Planets. But as pop and hip-hop grew in demand, jazz faded from mainstream public view.
That was until 2015, when rap superstar Kendrick Lamar brought new light to a hybrid of jazz and rap that had been happening underground. His second major-label album, To Pimp a Butterfly, was an expansive collage of hip-hop, funk and soul, with jazz firmly affixed to the center. That was due to Kendrick and Terrace Martin, a producer and multi-instrumentalist who studied under jazz great Reggie Andrews at Locke High School in South Los Angeles. Martin had been a go-to guy for Kendrick and his label, Top Dawg Entertainment, since the mid-2000s, and for To Pimp a Butterfly, he tapped into his network of jazz musicians in L.A. and beyond to add brass, live bass and keys to a wide-ranging palette of beats from the likes of Pharrell, Sounwave and Flying Lotus. The goal, trombonist Ryan Porter once told me, was to dilute the 808 drums for a lush soundscape. With musicians like Porter, Glasper, saxophonist Kamasi Washington, trumpeter Josef Leimberg and bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner in the mix, Butterfly is easily Kendrick’s most sonically ambitious album, and the one fans have the toughest time digesting, especially when compared with good kid, m.A.A.d. city‘s cinematic sheen and DAMN.‘s club-ready bravado.
I’ve spoken with many of Kendrick’s collaborators, and they all say the same thing: He’s a jazz musician in rapper’s clothing, whether or not the music is shaped by musicians who are classically trained in that genre. Just ask Martin. “He was like, ‘Man, a lot of the chords that you pick are jazz-influenced. You don’t understand: You a jazz musician by default,'” Kendrick once told producer Rick Rubin for GQ. “And that just opened me up. And he just started breaking down everything, the science, going back to Miles, Herbie Hancock.” Glasper, in an interview for my book about Kendrick, doubled down. “Kendrick had so much respect from everybody,” he told me. “He spoke to the jazz cats, to the music nerds, to the backpack rappers, the gangsters. That’s the real ‘hip-hop meets jazz’ right there. That was something I was already doing in my world, but for Kendrick to do it, it changed everything.”
On the surface, DAMN. isn’t knitted to the jazz world the way Butterfly was, but Kendrick is no different than Miles, Coltrane and Herbie before him: though he’s rooted in rap, he pushes his art to unforeseen places, bending the culture to what he’s doing. Like those icons, Kendrick has an innate sense of timing and space, giving his words the same weight that they gave their notes. On certain tracks, like the hard-charging “DNA.” and “HUMBLE.,” he’ll suffocate the music with rapid-fire rhymes; on “FEEL.” and “LUST.,” he’ll slide up and down the register to convey the right emotion for different sections of the beat. He knows when to surge forward and when to let it breathe. As a result, Kendrick is introducing jazz to a generation who might only know it through their parents’ old record collections. Listeners might not realize he’s doing this when they listen to an album like DAMN., even if they heard jazz more overtly on his previous LP. Like the legends before him, Kendrick challenged preconceived notions of what jazz is supposed to be, moving it beyond those who’d rather the genre stay in small clubs with cigarettes and martinis.
Where Butterfly was rooted in hard bop, DAMN. seemed steeped in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when jazz was murkier and more psychedelic. Equally complex and ambitious, DAMN. is more palatable than Butterfly, but no less vibrant. For some, the fact that it wasn’t as musically complicated somehow counted against DAMN., but vestiges of the past are still there — in the bluesy saunter of “FEAR.” and the acoustic soul of “FEEL.” But it’s on album closer “DUCKWORTH.,” produced by 9th Wonder, that the elements of jazz, hip-hop and soul come into the sharpest focus. 9th has a history of blending records from all genres into kaleidoscopic sets of deep soul and hip-hop. Each track has its own distinctive flair, but you can still tell it’s a 9th Wonder beat — the drums lock into a hypnotic groove and the vocal samples crack with nostalgic beauty. “DUCKWORTH.” mashes three beats into a tight coil of repurposed folk, progressive rock and experimental soul, on which Kendrick details a chance encounter between his father, Kenny Duckworth, and his future label boss, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith. Years before “Top Dawg” became a music mogul, he walked into a Kentucky Fried Chicken and saw Kendrick’s future father working there. “Top” was planning to rob the restaurant and stood in Kenny’s line to demand the cash. But Kenny had seen “Top” rob and shoot up the store before, so to spare his own life, he gave him free chicken and two extra biscuits to get on his good side. “You take two strangers and put ’em in random predicaments,” Kendrick rapped. “Whoever thought the greatest rapper would be from coincidence?”
Originally titled “Life Is Like A Box Of Chicken,” it was actually Kendrick’s idea to combine these three distinct beats from 9th Wonder into one shapeshifting whole. In December 2015, 9th played 20 beats for Kendrick; he didn’t find out until the following June that the rapper had stitched his music together in such a manner. “… He sent me a video snippet of him playing an mp3 off his computer,” 9th told The Recording Academy in 2018. “It was a 9-second clip that played right when the beat changed. After it was over, I hit him back saying, ‘Yo man, what the hell?’ and he put ‘LOL’ and that was it.” A story like this exemplifies what Martin, Glasper and others have said about Kendrick — that while he’ll propose strange ideas, he’s accrued such a level of genius that you have to let the vision unfold. He’s a musician’s musician, with a keen awareness of what sounds good in the moment, and he doesn’t get enough credit as a producer. Sure, it’s 9th Wonder’s name on the beats, but Kendrick molded them to match his own expansive vision, essentially making a new instrumental framework to reflect the story of his own life. What Kendrick did is no different than what a bandleader does.
This, in essence, is jazz — the art of improvising, a high-wire act between like-minds without a safety net beneath it. Be it music, fine art or creative writing, it’s essential to trek the road less traveled, to present work the public doesn’t know it needs until it arrives. Now it isn’t so risky to release a jazz album — artists like Thundercat and Kamasi command big space on the marquee, and labels like International Anthem and Astral Spirits are go-to places for avant-garde music created by those who aren’t wedded entirely to specific jazz scenes. Through sonic ingenuity and fluid storytelling, “DUCKWORTH.” is the high-water mark of Kendrick’s Pulitzer Prize-winning album and the arguable centerpiece of his unique rap-jazz aesthetic. He’s at the vanguard of this movement, proving that he too is a rule breaker, just like Miles, Herbie, Coltrane, Glasper and Hargove, who all took bold creative risks to push jazz into uncharted territory.
This article was written by Ikigai member, Marcus J. Moore. Marcus is an award winning journalist and author of The Butterfly Effect: How Kendrick Lamar Ignited The Soul of Black America. To read more of Marcus’ work, click here or here.