Kendrick Lamar does not have a winning track record when it comes to recognition from established, prestigious and predominantly white institutions.
At the 56th Grammy Awards in 2014, his modern day classic “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City” was snubbed for Best Rap Album in favor of Macklemore’s “The Heist,” drawing widespread allegations of institutional racism in the music industry.
To perform a sold-out concert accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra is an honor for Kendrick in itself, but it is especially meaningful given the context of his success despite a lack of recognition.
In the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Tuesday night, more than 2,000 spectators formed a racially diverse crowd of all ages in anticipation of the unprecedented show.
Kendrick strode across the stage with purpose, as if to assert the legitimacy of his presence at the esteemed venue. Clad in all black, he was joined by four bandmates and took his position at the front of the stage. The set kicked off with “For Free,” a cut from his most recent album “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Jazzy piano and drums backed his delivery, rattling with the confidence of a slam poet.
The crowd seemed unsure whether or not to stand, given the seemingly conflicting natures of the music and the venue. It wasn’t until the set’s fourth song, “Backseat Freestyle,” that this ambivalence was crushed by the overwhelming desire to get up and dance. Those who knew the words (as many did) sang along, while the older members of the audience swayed with the cocky rhythm and aggressive lyrics: “All my life I want money and power / Respect my mind or die from lead shower / I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower / So I can fuck the world for 72 hours.”
If concertgoers were uncomfortable with the brash lyrics, they failed to show it. The climax proved to be “Backstreet Freestyle,” effectively ridding the audience of all reservations and opening the doors to full audience participation for the remainder of the concert.
After the brief interlude of “Swimming Pools,” Kendrick’s breakout single from “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City,” came “These Walls.” One of his more low-key tracks, it mellowed the atmosphere as Kendrick soothed the crowd with his soft-spoken cadence and powerful verse. After, NSO conductor Steven Reineke turned around at his podium and applauded the performance.
The pace picked up again with “Hood Politics,” a critique of present politics and the hypocrisy of the United States’ leaders. “Streets don’t fail me now / They tell me it’s a new gang in town / From Compton to Congress / Set trippin’ all around,” he rapped, gesturing at the stage he stood on to highlight the concert hall’s proximity to the leaders of whom he spoke.
If Kendrick sought to spread one message through his performance, it was that of self love. On “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” he sang, “Dark as the midnight hour or bright as the morning sun” and “I came to where you reside / And looked around to see more sights for sore eyes.” Kendrick urged the audience to cast aside their doubts and to “love yourself.” One audience member professed, “I love you, too, Kendrick,” and was met with a laugh and head shake.
The energy picked up with “M.A.A.D. City,” one of Kendrick’s most upbeat and confident tracks, and was maintained throughout “To Pimp a Butterfly,” “King Kunta” and “i.” The latter two songs received the most audience participation, with the crowd drowning out Kendrick on the choruses and flailing their limbs to the spirited rhythm. Such a lively audience, combined with the enthusiasm of Kendrick and his band, stood in sharp contrast to the reserved orchestra
The last song of the 15-song set was “Mortal Man,” which took the pace down a notch and showcased Kendrick’s poetic delivery. The crowd was mostly seated, while a few remained standing in awe, as the orchestra built up in intensity for the finish. The crowd gave a standing ovation, and Reineke applauded again from the podium.
The applause would not stop. The audience chanted Kendrick’s name, and he unsurprisingly returned to the stage for an encore performance of “Alright,” a song whose chorus has been coopted by protest movements around the country in a show of positive solidarity.
Kendrick left once more to a rousing standing ovation while the NSO tied up the performance with an elaborate outro. “This is your National Symphony Orchestra,” Reineke shouted over the applause.
And it truly felt like our orchestra. Where the concert shone brightest was the way it evoked a feeling of convergence, with people from many walks of life coming together to appreciate a common art form.
On the outer wall of the Kennedy Center reads a quote from President John F. Kennedy: “I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty.” The founders of the Kennedy Center might not have appreciated the talent Kendrick demonstrated had he performed 50 years ago, but the concert demonstrated immense progress in recognizing the merits of modern rap music.
“To Pimp a Butterfly” will likely be the favorite in the running for Best Rap Album at the Grammy Awards next year. Regardless of his success there, Kendrick has nothing left to prove; his influence on modern rap goes almost unmatched.