We never thought we'd hear the finished songs. At midnight, however, Kendrick Lamar released untitled unmastered., an eight-track project that includes the songs that he initially performed on the Colbert Report in 2014, the Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon earlier this year, and last month at the Grammys.
Lamar's longtime collaborator, the producer and saxman Terrace Martin, confirms that all the songs on untitled unmastered. are holdovers from the recording sessions for To Pimp a Butterfly. Today we spoke with Martin, who talked about the timing behind these latest songs, the thrill of performing “Alright” at the Grammys, and the camaraderie that has united the rappers and jazz players of Los Angeles. Martin also answered criticism that French Montana and Jay Electronica have recently addressed to Kendrick Lamar.
Where’d this tape come from?
The Kendrick record that dropped yesterday was outakes, different motifs and uncompleted thoughts. Demos. What’s your favorite ones?
Tracks three, six, and eight. Six is the bossa nova record.
Ah, yeah—that’s my good brother from the West Coast, Adrian Young, he produced that record. It’s from earlier in the process of recording To Pimp a Butterfly. I just remember walking into the studio room at No Excuses, where we did the record, and seeing Ali, Kendrick, and everybody playing this one. I thought they were playing an old bossa nova record from Antônio Carlos Jobim, or a Stan Getz record, but then I heard singing on it, and rapping. It was Kendrick. That’s the record when I first thought, “Whoa, we might be going to some different dimensions.” I heard it that one day, and I just heard it again on my Spotify 11 minutes ago.
What about track four?
Um, “head is the answer, head is the future, don’t second guess yourself”—that one?
That was done around the same week we did “For Free?” I don’t know why that didn’t make it onto the original album. My only memory of that song is that we were eating heavy ramen, drinking organic vodka and 60-year-old cognac. We were on our low-key, dim candles-type shit.
You and I once talked about music and moments. Why do we get to hear these eight songs?
The people that felt when we did [The Colbert Show], that was around that night and that moment. Now it’s another moment. You have as many moments as you wanna have. Then was the moment for then, and now is the moment for now.
We were eating heavy ramen, drinking organic vodka and 60-year-old cognac. We were on our low-key, dim candles-type shit.
How did the Grammys feel as a moment?
It was amazing. Even bigger than the stage and the award itself, it was cool that like 90 million people that were not familiar with our movement are now a part of our movement, or aware. All I was thinking up there was, “Don’t hit the wrong note.” And you know what? I hit all the wrong notes. It’s always fearful when you realize that you have a huge responsibility. Kids are looking at it who could be inspired to play an instrument. People looking at it who could be inspired to love life. We wanna convey the right message.
What’s the movement?
Anybody that is aware of what is going on in society today and wants to make a change to help humans live together and love together through art. That’s the movement I’m talking about. I love all types of music. I love everybody. But I just recently saw an interview with French Montana on the Breakfast Club where he said the Grammys were trying to position Kendrick a certain kinda way. People that are slandering any form of love, or any form of change that people can live on, people who slander that are part of the problem. They’re not part of the movement.
If anything, you should be congratulating a young black man like Kendrick Lamar who’s making those kind of accomplishments and opening the door a little wider for other artists to come through. I would think that people would love and congratulate that, and think, we can do it, too. Kendrick did it off raw talent, ability, and consciousness of the things around him.
Why do you think people like French are frustrated?
I don’t know French personally, but I know frustration personally. I’ve wanted to voice things like that in the past. Sometimes it comes from no longer feeling as accepted as you once felt. I’ve felt like that before. Sometimes it comes from lack of understanding. I don’t think he’s upset personally. I just heard Jay Electronicasaying those negative things, too, and I was disappointed. I’ve always thought positive, great things about Jay Electronica. To hear him say anything other than uplifting things about his brother, I just thought that was weird.
The line on here where Kendrick says he “can’t end a career if it never started,” was that a shot at Jay Electronica?
Nah, nah—these records were done two, some of them three years ago. We’re not thinking about these guys in these studios. Kids are getting killed. Trump may be president. Do you think we have time to think about another fucking rapper? No! We got families. We got friends around us that are dying, murdered by folks who look just like us. We got the police tripping. Once again, Trump may be president! We are not in these studios thinking about what any of these guys say.
I will say, I’m on the internet sometimes, floating around, watching the Breakfast Club. I love Charlamagne. He and DJ Envy and all them cats keep my day going. They know how to get to the truth of how people feel about things. If you want to know how somebody feels about you, just look at the Breakfast Club. Sometimes I get so disappointed with our brothers in hip-hop, but everybody’s still family. Sometimes you get disappointed with family.
Sometimes I get so disappointed with our brothers in hip-hop, but everybody’s still family. Sometimes you get disappointed with family.
Why does this work so well? This crew. This scene. I compare L.A. to other cities, and you guys seem so close-knit if I compare you to what rappers in Houston or New York are doing right now.
We all know each other personally. We came up from preschool to elementary school to junior high school to college to the same tours. Me, Kamasi Washington, and Thundercat have shared so much experience. We both were with Dr. Dre. We both did the Quincy Jones record. So we’re close. We know each others’ parents. We know each others’ kids. It looks like that and sounds like that because it really is that. It’s a blessing.
Twenty-five years from now, when I'm describing this scene and this moment to people, what’s the canon? What are the crucial records?
good kid, m.A.A.d city. My Krazy Life. Kamasi Washington’s The Epic. Thundercat, both of his records. And now, this album. I almost lost my father when we were doing one of those songs on To Pimp a Butterfly, “Mortal Man.” I lost one of my one of my best friends, Zane Musa, and we almost lost my father due to pneumonia and lung problems. A month later, I said, “I’m gonna do this Velvet Portraits album.” My father’s one of my favorite drummers, and he’s doing drums on 80 percent of the album. It’s the real classic, fly-ass, soulful shit. I pray that people get that message, too: if you feel like telling your mother, father or loved one you love them, you should say that shit now. That’s kind of the heartfelt message I wanted to get at on Velvet Portraits. It comes out April 1 on Ropeadope Records. I did a joint venture with my new, independent label, Sound of Crenshaw. This is the first release. I basically came up with Sound of Crenshaw so I could have a platform for other artists that do different kinds of music so they can be creative over here. If YG ever wants to do a jazz record with a string orchestra, he can do it on Sound of Crenshaw.
Why haven’t you already talked YG into doing a jazz album with string arrangements?
Whenever you come to L.A., I’m gonna take you to one of these sessions, and I’mma let you tell me why I haven’t thought of having YG with strings.
Talk to me about Cardo. I know he's got some songs on here.
This was the first time I’ve worked with him. It was on “Get Top on the phone!” (the second track). I was supposed to come to the studio at 4 p.m. that afternoon. Kendrick had been calling, telling me, “Yo, I got this Cardo record, you gotta come.” I love Cardo, that’s my brother, that’s my friend. Me and Cardo have a personal relationship. We’d never worked together, but we talk a lot. I admire Cardo. Him and Wiz have a sound that’s like butter and toast.
When I got there, all I heard was, “Get Top on the phone!” That bass came in, and we were already pushing the line musically. I was like, “You know what we gotta do? We gotta get piano on it.” I was kinda tired, and I dozed off on the couch for seven or eight hours. When I woke up, it was 3 a.m., and everyone was gone except him and the engineer, [Cardo] had stayed up and was waiting for me to do my part. I woke up in a weird vibe, and it came to me. I touched the piano. But then Kendrick and Sounwave was like, “Why don’t you get your horn?” On this? He was like, “I mean, we got a Pharrell song.” There was talk of “Alright” then, and me playing horn over a trap, jazzy thing. I was like, “Alright, let’s try it.” The experimental part of that song for me was that jazz style of saxophone playing with eerie, drifty piano sounds over the trap theme to give it a more dark, gruesome scary movie instead of scary video element.
I’mma tell you the best producer on untitled. The best producer is Swizz Beatz’s son, Egypt. That little boy. He’s gonna be bigger than everyone. Last night on Instagram, I was like, “Is this a joke?” And then I read what Alicia wrote on Instagram about her baby. That made me cry, reading what they said and listening to his music. That is what this music is about. Representing family, unity, youth, the next, the new, the fresh. That’s what the movement is about. Change. That changed the game, man.