“Kendrick Lamar’s performance is going to be very controversial,” said Grammy Awards host LL Cool J prior to the live broadcast. Lamar walked onto the Grammy stage chained from wrists to feet in prison blues, bound to four inmates, with men in cells behind them. Marching toward the microphone, sporting a bruised eye and timidly wrapping his chains over the mic, it became apparent something unforgettable was about to happen.
Lamar commenced to unleash a three-part audio/visual dissertation on African duality. Lamar has built his growing reputation for crafting cinematic imagery on wax with his conceptual albums Section 8.0, good kid, m.A.A.d. city and To Pimp a Butterfly. Lamar, however, has always recognized that television plays a critical role in dramatizing his music and message, and his provocative TV presentations all led to last night’s career defining moment.
The journey to this watershed Grammy performance started last April on Saturday Night Live, when K.Dot gave a definitive performance of “i.” Wearing penny loafers, rolled-up jeans and a plain white T-shirt—with no hype man, a live band and background singers—Kendrick appeared unconventional for a hip-hop artist. He let the music compel him to move, while at the same time spouting religious phrases like, “the return of the Enoch is back.”
Last night at the Grammys, he opened with To Pimp a Butterfly’s most hot-tempered song, “The Blacker the Berry.” The lyrics were aptly placed in a room full of industry suits and out-of-touch pop stars, with a backdrop of social unrest in America. “Been feeling this way since I was 16/Come to my senses/You never cared about us anyway/Bump your friendship, I meant it.”
It spoke both to the institutional overseers who’ve been terrorizing Black men and women in the streets for decades, as well as a thinly veiled dismissive stance against the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences’ attitude for Black artists. (Lamar was nominated for 11 awards and won five, but lost Album, Record and Song of the Year.) After breaking off his chains, Lamar twice hollered, “Lock our bodies but can’t trap up our minds!” Such a proclamation harked back to the image of Lamar rapping “Alright” atop of a police patrol car during the opening of the BET Awards last June.
Soon the roaring guitars of “The Blacker the Berry” gave way to Terrace Martin’s saxophone over congas. Lamar walked from the cold prison walls into the warmth of an African village, its inhabitants chanting the refrain of the next song, “We gon’ be alright.” The inmates joined the African villagers, dancing and drumming around a titanic bonfire in the middle of the stage, as Kendrick performed his award-winning anthem. It was the fulfillment of Nas’s dream (in “If I Ruled the World”) when he rhymed, “I’d open up every cell in Attica/Send them to Africa.”
The combination of villagers and convicts doing choreographed steps represented an assertion from the previous song: “Vandalize my perception, but you can’t take style from me.” African Americans are a proud, accomplished people, and our tradition cannot be erased by incarceration or character assassination.
Lamar had experimented with multi-dimensional performance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show in May 2015. He rhymed on a specially designed LED-lit stage, as two Black dancers waltzed and twirled in all white, a painter etching their images as K.Dot performed “These Walls”—his revenge letter to the man who killed his friend during good kid’s “Sing About Me/I’m Dying of Thirst.” The visionary concept of incorporating numerous art forms simultaneously conveyed that hip-hop goes beyond lyrics; refined beauty and premeditated antagonism can coexist just as we go through life exuding broad emotional ranges.
The finale of the Grammys’ six-minute tour-de-force was a new verse, which found Kendrick recalling some fresh anguish from the catalyst of #BlackLivesMatter. “On February 26, I lost my life too…” Kendrick was speaking of the day Trayvon Martin was killed. He put himself in the space of the incident, as if he was an eyewitness: “That was me yelling for help when you drowned in his blood/Why did defend himself?/Why did he throw a punch?/And for a whole community, you don’t know what this does/Add to a trail of hatred/2012 was taken for the world to see set us back another 400 years/This is modern day slavery.”
Then, he fantasized about exacting retribution on Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman: “The reason why I’m by your house/You threw your briefcase all on the couch/I plan on creeping through your damn door/And blowing out every piece of your brain…” It all ended with a video projection of Africa, but identified on screen as Compton; a final profound declaration that we all come from the same source. The outcry was uproarious. Even Adele ended her own performance by acknowledging Lamar. “I love you Kendrick; you’re amazing.”
This has become the most enthralling aspect of Kendrick’s TV routines. His choice to unleash brand new songs/verses—with no intention of recording them—is high risk/high reward for most, but it’s been paying off for Lamar in a huge way thanks to his “Untitled” performances. In February 2015, Lamar appeared on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report with an untitled song conceived just the day before.
In a black leather coat, sporting a flask amidst misty haze with Martin miming a dice game behind him, Lamar spit fire about subconscious desires of Asians (a piece of mind), Indians (a piece of land), Blacks (a piece of nookie) and Whites (a piece of mines). In January, he performed “Untitled 2” on The Tonight Show, his band dripping with soul/funk and him waxing poetic on the downsides of chasing fast money.
Of course, Lamar’s live Grammy appearance comes on the heels of Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance of “Formation,” with pseudo-scantily clad Black Panther dancers and her proclamation of Black southern pride mixed with promises of after-sex rewards. Her well meaning social statement was murky in the wake of Kendrick’s well-defined execution. Although both were unapologetic in their Blackness, Lamar portrayed unquestionable Black Pride, sandwiched by unquestionable Black rage.
Kendrick lets his art reflect the times, like all great visionaries before him. All of his incredible television declarations have been met with praise, but now, what does he do for an encore? One showstopper after another got people talking about what he had done. From now on, he carries the burden of those same people asking, “What will he do next?”
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based broadcast professional and music journalist whose work can be found in The Village Voice, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. Follow Allen on Twitter @headphoneaddict, and visit his music blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict.