“Mortal Man” is the final track on Kendrick Lamar’s GRAMMY-winning 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly. Clocking in at over 12 minutes, “Mortal Man” is divided into two parts. Part one finds Lamar rapping over lush strings and creeping horns, with a bassline that marches the song’s dark timbre forward. Part two features a posthumous interview with one of Lamar’s influences, 2Pac, which is underscored by a jazz jam session and arranged by composer and saxophonist Kamasi Washington.The jazz elements in part two were recorded in a two-hour jam session, featuring pianist Robert Glasper. It was then cut up and sent it over to Derek Ali for mixing.
“When we were recording the strings, we were using twenty-something mics at a time: four room mics, two overheads—every string had its own mic,” recalls David Kim, one of the recording engineers on the session for “Mortal Man” in an iZotope interview.
For as busy as the beat is, never do the horns, piano, or guitar distract from Lamar’s vocals in Part 1, nor do they in the jazz session of Part 2. They sit back in the mix, often mimicking or repeating the descending lead melody of the horns and bass. (At 1:14 you can hear one example of that horn melody.)
As the song goes on, that melody becomes a motif, and we’re able to pick up on it more easily. Ali and co. can pan those supporting lines tastefully. Here’s an example at 3:54 of guitar mimicking that line, panned left).
Hip-hop producers—keep this track close at hand.