WASHINGTON -- The crowd at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was already cheering Tuesday night before Kendrick Lamar walked onstage. But when Lamar strolled into the spotlight, dragging a mic stand, the cheers rose to almost unbearable levels.
The Compton-born, Grammy Award-winning rapper is powerful. His presence alone commanded attention from the 2,500 or so people there to see his first orchestral collaboration. Lamar is the just the third musician ever to partner with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center for a one-night-only performance. The New York rapper Nas performed his classic album “Illmatic” with the symphony last year, and Phish’s Trey Anastasio took the stage in 2013.
In the early part of the evening, The Mellow Tones, a jazz group composed of students from D.C.’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts, gave a hint of what kind of night it was going to be with a performance of Marvin Gaye’s protest song “What’s Going On.”
Mark Meadows, the group’s director, told the crowd they'd chosen this song because Lamar is “at the forefront of what we need to be talking about.”
It’s safe to say many people agree. Young activists with the Black Lives Matter movement have made “Alright” -- a warm, encouraging and honest track from "To Pimp A Butterfly," Lamar's most recent album -- into a protest anthem, shouting the lyrics at demonstrations on multiple occasions. (At least one concertgoer was heard shouting "Black lives matter" Tuesday night.) "Alright" is not a song about how everything is great in America: The refrain includes the lines "We hate po-po / Want to kill us dead in the street for sure," lyrics that too accurately describe black life in the U.S. But the track also insists that when everything is said and done, black people are going to be just fine.
“His politics ruffles feathers -- and there’s nothing wrong with that in hip-hop,” David Rhodes, who came to D.C. from Rhode Island to see the performance, told The Huffington Post before the concert. “Hip-hop can’t progress without that.”
With stage presence to spare, Lamar walked his fans through his repertoire in a way that -- while it zigzagged the actual chronology of Lamar's releases -- seemed appropriate.
“For Free?” gave way to “Wesley’s Theory,” followed by “Backseat Freestyle” and “Swimming Pools” -- two tunes from Lamar's breakthrough sophomore album "good kid, m.A.A.d city" -- during the first act.
Lamar allowed the symbolism of water and the metaphor of entrapment to lead him to "These Walls," a song from "Butterfly" that hints at the dark undercurrents of fame while also touching on the ways that mass incarceration takes people who've fallen victim to the system and isolates them from the ones they love most.
Lamar’s second act introduced the crowd to Lucy, a recurring character on "Butterfly" -- a temptress who is actually Lucifer in female form. After “Hood Politics” and “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” Lamar welcomed the crowd to “m.A.A.d City,” a place that murders hope and dreams along with black bodies. Even this wasn't the bleakest part of the evening -- that arrived with "u," a raw song from "Butterfly" where Lamar gasps and sobs and rages at himself, remembering a time when he spoke to a dying friend over video chat "instead of a hospital visit." Lamar told the crowd that "u" was the sound of a dark time in his life.
In the sequencing of the album, “u” is immediately followed by "Alright." On Tuesday, Lamar switched out one defiant anthem for another, going from the lows of "u" to the strutting “King Kunta,” which evokes Alex Haley's Roots in telling the story of how the song's narrator evolved “from a peasant to a prince to a motherfucking king.” Then he moved into the album version of “i,” an uplifting song of self-love, before dancing his way through “How Much A Dollar Cost,” “The Blacker The Berry” and “Mortal Man.”
In 2015, very few artists are making music as complex or ambitious as Lamar's -- something the rapper seemed to acknowledge near the end of Tuesday's show. Before taking the crowd into “Alright,” the final song of the night, Lamar asked everyone to observe a moment of silence. He then delivered a message to his fans.
“Since day one, it’s always been about doing music that people relate to and people can live their day-to-day lives to,” he said. “And I wanted to go times 10 -- I did it on my first album -- but I wanted to go times 10 with 'To Pimp A Butterfly,' where only a selected few will get to understand it and live by it and learn from it the same way I’m learning from it. So, with that being said, give me something deep.”
The emcee then turned his back to the crowd, adjusted his earpiece and began shouting the track’s opening lines, as the song's jubilant chords, reminiscent of a choir singing on Sunday morning, rang out in the concert hall.
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