While you may not have watched the Grammy Awards this past weekend (24% fewer of you did than last year at least), you likely heard about Kendrick Lamar’s stunning performance. It was bold, flashy, and quite frankly, confusing. Watching the performance just once didn’t suffice, given how many different elements Lamar included in his six minutes of stage time. Personally, I had to re-watch his performance several times, and with each view I understood something new. That being said, here are three takeaways from Kung Fu Kenny’s performance at the 60th annual Grammy Awards.
XXX over LUST.
Lamar opened with an introduction from his song XXX., before the instrumental shifted to that of LUST. Despite this, Lamar rapped a verse from XXX., which was about violence and vengeance. In the verse, he receives a phone call from a friend saying that his son was killed. In response to this, Lamar tells his friend that if somebody were to kill his son then somebody would be getting killed, implying that he recommends his friend acts vengefully. In the original song, this intentionally belligerent verse is up-staged by a loud and ornamented instrumental which contains sirens and drums. To ensure that the message from that verse had the audience’s undivided attention, Lamar performed the verse over the instrumental from the calm and smooth LUST.
“The only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America…”
Following a verse from the energetic DNA., the stage lights go off and the camera turns to comedian Dave Chappelle, who has recently stepped back into the spotlight following an extended break from the entertainment industry. Chappelle tells the audience that he is there to remind them that “the only thing more frightening than watching a black man be honest in America is being an honest black man in America”. Lamar then continues with a performance of his verse from Rich The Kid’s New Freezer (no, this wasn’t a new song) followed by his verse from label-mate Jay Rock’s King’s Dead, which is all about popular consumerism interests and how we are told and trained to like certain things that ultimately benefit capitalists. He ends the verse with a gunshot and the camera turns back to Chappelle, who asks if this is airing on cable. He then says “it looks like he’s singing and dancing but this brother’s taking enormous chances”. This line is easily overlooked due to the quick shift back to Lamar, but it’s an incredible element of the overall performance as it could be referring to Lamar’s decision to make another political statement on stage despite the enormous amount of he faced for his 2015 performance at the BET Awards. Theoretically, anybody could have taken on the role occupied by Chappelle but given Lamar’s history of promoting self-reflection and denouncing greed, Chappelle seems to be a perfect compliment.
This is a satire, by Kendrick Lamar.
Early in his set, Lamar had “THIS IS A SATIRE BY KENDRICK LAMAR” appear on the screen behind him. This was met with great applause but, once again, was easily forgettable for an audience who was impressed at the mere sight of seeing U2’s Bono join Lamar on stage. Despite this statement having slipped by many, it is essential to understanding Lamar’s message. He mentions that this is a satire because he presents extreme cases of societal conflict in his verses but wants the audience to understand that behind these exaggerations are real issues that remain unsolved. This technique is not new to Lamar, as he previously used it to convey messages in The Art of Peer Pressure and How Much a Dollar Cost from two of his previous albums.
Ultimately, Lamar’s dazzling performance was impressive and stacked with layers of details which all contributed to the powerful message he wished to convey. Rather than spending his six minutes of stage time on celebrating his music and achievements, Lamar addresses institutional problems surrounding platforms of expression, conflicts within society, as well as violence and vengeance. He wants the audience to acknowledge the existence of these problems, which will hopefully make room for a solution to be introduced. Lamar’s courage and initiative to continuously use his platform to increase awareness of political and societal issues is just one of the reasons why Lamar is considered one of the greatest artists of this generation. He’s just too damn good.