You’ve heard the buzz around Kendrick Lamar’s show-stealing Grammy performance. If you weren’t convinced that now is the time to start paying attention to that show, here are a few kickers:
1. Who Doesn’t LOVE Some Live Kendrick Lamar?
If you haven’t been following his live performances in the last year here’s what you missed. Kendrick has a habit of performing unreleased material on national television. A lot. He doesn’t even name them. He just decided to drop “Untitled 1” on the Colbert Report last year and “Untitled 2” on Jimmy Fallon this past month. And now he’s done it again with the Grammy’s. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
Kendrick is also known for his medleys. Last September, he ran through three songs off of his newest Album To Pimp A Butterfly in 4 minutes on Late Show with Stephen Colbert. I know, insane. Just Watch it.
Take a close look, these aren’t the album cuts. He reinvents each track, complete with a pseudo-acapella rendition of “Momma”.
Kendrick’s performance on Monday was certainly no exception. He combines both of these hobbies into a medley featuring his newest unreleased exploit, “Untitled 3”.
Incredible, right? Right.
Okay, now we’re on the same page. Moving on…
2. Is This a 6 minute Grammy Performance or an Acid Trip Through the History of Black American Music?
Both. I am by no means an aficionado on music history. But when I look at that performance, I see Jazz, Rock and Roll, Tribal African, Funk, Blues, and Hip Hop music happening on one stage in 6 minutes. This man was given a performance at the Grammys and he decided to literally walk and rap his way through a history of American music and culture. And we haven’t even talked about staging or the damn words yet!
3. Hello, World. Kendrick Has Something to Say
Some of the strongest statements made on Monday night were conveyed through the set and staging of the performance. Again, just watch it, but here’s a taste. Kendrick comes out in shackles, followed by four inmates into the center of a prison cell block. He works his handcuffs over the microphone and begins his performance of “The Blacker the Berry,” a dense song tackling many racial and societal issues. The excerpt he performs focuses on how people perceive him:
“You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture
You know you’re evil I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey
You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me”
A saxophone wails in the cell to the right of him. Here, Kendrick makes, in no subtle terms, a connection between his lyrics and the issue of mass incarceration in his community. Once freeing himself from the shackles, he walks to a large bonfire surrounded by tribal dancers. He begins performing “Alright”, an anthem from To Pimp A Butterfly. After an intricate and thrilling performance of the track that got him the Best Rap Performance Award, he moves into his grand finale.
The Third segment of his medley strips down from the extravagant and evocative settings of the previous songs, and moves back to some good ole Kendrick aesthetic. One mic, stationary Lamar and a spotlight.
He starts “Untitled 3”, a piece largely dealing with his opinions on the Trayvon Martin Case from 2012. I won’t try and tell you exactly what he is saying, because I’m still figuring it out. But I will direct you to Genius.com, where they have the lyrics and a decent reading of his work. (Check out the Langston Hughes reference in 4th line).
After some fun fanfare and a mesmerizing performance of “Untitled 3”, he ends the show silhouetted by a symbol of Africa with “Compton” over it in black text.
4. So… What does it all mean?
The American prison system, the roots of the black struggle, Trayvon Martin, and what it means to be a Black American in 2016. Kendrick puts these issues right next to each other and then rubs them together. I won’t tell you exactly what he’s saying because I’m still trying to read the sparks he made. This much is for sure- you better be paying attention.