When it was announced that Kendrick Lamar was going to be performing selections from his latest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, at the Kennedy Center with National Symphony Orchestra, the Grammy winner was about to join some rather illustrious company. While many popular musicians of varying genres have played in the elegant hall in our nation’s capital, two come to mind that share in the MC’s circumstances: Marvin Gaye and Nas.
In 1972, Gaye performed his landmark album What’s Going On with an orchestra the year following its release. Last year, Nas performed his debut Illmatic in celebration of its 20th anniversary. Both artists were/are masters of their crafts, performing albums that were universally prophetic as well as singularly personal. With K.Dot, To Pimp a Butterfly follows the same path, expounding on themes of spirituality and diagnosing social ills in urban society.
Despite receiving rave reviews and selling over 500,000 copies since its March release, Lamar hasn’t performed many tracks from the LP, live save the singles, “i,” “King Kunta” and “Alright.” With a sold-out Washington, D.C. audience and backed by a symphony, Lamar chose the perfect time to unleash some live versions.
The Kennedy Center was a beautiful sight of multiple races and ages, dressed in several interpretational variations of formal: sweater vests and slacks; evening gowns and tuxedos; fresh kicks and graphic tees. It was obvious these folks were aware that they were about to witness a once-in-a-lifetime event in a auspicious setting.
Kendrick Lamar commenced his set with an overture from the National Symphony Orchestra doing a cinematic medley of To Pimp a Butterfly tunes, getting the crowd pumped up. Kendrick’s touring band walked out playing Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love.” Lamar was draped in nothing but black, as was his band. As he proclaimed in his instantly infamous verse on Big Sean’s “Control,” his no frills, no name brand garb helps the audience to focus on him rather than an image of him.
K.Dot immediately launched into “For Free?,” his spoken word interlude comparing America to a sexy, overbearing gold digger. The interplay between the orchestra and Lamar’s quintet was amazing from the start. Each knew when to come in and when to lay out. It quickly became clear that the show’s purpose was serving the song or the songs’ moods.
Lamar then segued to Butterfly opener “Wesley’s Theory,” which was a great showcase for his band, exuding a funkiness that moved the capacity crowd all night long. But the instrumentation wasn’t always groove laden, instead informed by a heaviness, a raucous attitude that was gritty, guttural and pounding. This rock element was especially prevalent during good kid, m.A.A.d. city cuts “Backseat Freestyle” and “m.A.A.d. City.”
The ease with which the massive ensemble was able to go from the former to the bouncy two-step of “These Walls” was prodigious. It’s to the credit of Lamar and National Symphony Orchestra conductor Steven Reineke that they didn’t play To Pimp a Butterfly in sequence, opting rather to meticulously have one mood bleed into another.
For instance, the lushness of the French horns and violins on “For Sale?” was a calming element, preparing everyone for the grinding, brooding punches of “Hood Politics.” Just as Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” struck a nerve at the Kennedy Center in 1972, “Hood Politics” was incredible poignant, as K.Dot compared the vaunted two-party system to the brutal Compton gangs from his native city: “Ain’t nothing new with Democrips and Rebloodicans/Red state vs. a blue state, which one you governing?” What a fearless move to make such a song the centerpiece of the set right in D.C., the nerve center for its unfortunate inspiration.
Kendrick’s command—of stage, band and audience—was indisputable. While hardly removing the mic from its stand most of the evening, he attacked it with deft articulation and pose, yet still expressed fury and fire with every turn of phrase, every exclamation. He was a poet, preacher and a bandleader, sometimes within a span of five seconds.
Lamar physically embodied lyrics and music. Meanwhile, the National Symphony Orchestra never once overwhelmed the MC or his rhythm section; the massive ensemble was an extension of said rhythm section. On “King Kunta,” the double basses and cellos replaced the electric bass heard on record, but maintain the thumping groove that could still cause the subwoofer to shake your car. During “The Blacker the Berry,” the brass section punctuated the urgent drama of album’s arguably most blatantly defiant song, not to mention lifting the already hyped crowd into an ominous fervor.
The concert finally crescendoed to a dynamic double clutch of a climax, starting with “Mortal Man.” The album’s dramatic closer—which included a startling interview between Lamar and the late Tupac Shakur—was tailor-made for a symphony. Lamar continuously inquired “when sh*t hits the fan, is you still a fan?,” challenging his listeners who allow the personal weaknesses of great leaders to outweigh their contributions to society. All the while, the French horns and violins swelled the tension bar after bar.
This seemed to be an ideal point to end things, as Lamar and Reineke walked off stage. But the crowd wouldn’t allow it, screaming for their return. They obliged with Lamar’s “Alright,” an anthem of faith and defiance against the immediate evils both surrounding us and inside of us. “Alright” has quickly become a battle cry for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, frequently chanted during protests around the country—most recently at the Million Man March a week ago, mere blocks away from the Kennedy Center.
“Alright” undoubtedly evoked the biggest response from the audience: a sea of people pumping fists, dancing in the aisles, the sweeping strings and horns lifting the song to new heights of joy as everyone screamed, “We gon’ be alright, do you here me, do you feel me?” It cemented Lamar’s place alongside Marvin Gaye and Nas as an auteur of the times hoping for change.
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.