Gon’ Be Alright: Kendrick Lamar ACL Taping Review

Kendrick Lamar performs on Austin City Limits; photo by Scott Newton / KLRU

Kendrick Lamar performs on Austin City Limits; photo by Scott Newton / KLRU

The crowd last Friday night was younger than usual for an Austin City Limits taping. As the floor filled with people and smokers on the patio hurried to finish their pre-show cigarettes, a day of heavy rain across Central Texas was just starting to clear up. Fans of the night’s performer, rapper Kendrick Lamar, eagerly took selfies and strained to read setlists taped to the TV camera rigs. Now in its forty-first year, the PBS program had only previously hosted one hip-hop artist– the Brooklyn-born rapper/actor Mos Def, in 2009. Like Mos, Lamar brought a full band with him. Dressed in all-black, they spread out on risers across the back of the stage and started to play an instrumental version of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love” before Lamar took to the stage. Lamar began with a version of “For Free,” an exercise in ecstatic slam poetry over wilding out jazz, and you could feel the room melt.

Is there another figure in American music so intellectually restless? Anyone else who’d made a song like “i,” a career-defining, jubilant ode to self-love and an exquisite example of pop songcraft, would have built their next album around it. But the version of “i” that showed up on this year’s universally acclaimed To Pimp A Butterfly was not the single. It was the fifteenth song on the album. Upon first listen, fans may have been surprised to hear what sounded like a live version of the song. But it wasn’t. It was something much more adventurous: a studio simulation of a “live performance” (complete with “flubs”), which Lamar pauses to address people fighting in the crowd. “Not on my time,” he says. He says he loves them, but their behavior is “petty.” He asks a question. “How many we done lost? This year alone?”

Kendrick Lamar performs on Austin City Limits; photo by Scott Newton / KLRU

Kendrick Lamar performs on Austin City Limits; photo by Scott Newton / KLRU

During Friday’s performance, the stakes seemed to get higher with each song. How could he top that? Key songs from Lamar’s career were represented, with an emphasis on his most recent album. “Complexion” was reduced to just an appreciation of the chorus: “Complexion/ Complexion don’t mean a thing/ Complexion/ It all feels the same,” over and over. “Just listen to those words,” he said, getting everyone in the house to sing, even people who’d never heard a note of his music. He often looked lost in thought, which was right on. He was inviting us into his mind.

Every song had something about its arrangement changed, some more than others. “The Blacker the Berry” was more hypnotic than the version on record. He started “These Walls” with the band subdued, bursting into a vibrant chorus only after a full verse without them, the better to appreciate his wondrous lyrics about the light and dark sides of being with a woman whose husband is spending his life in prison: “If these walls could talk they’d tell me to swim good/ No boat I float better than he would/ No life jacket I’m not the god of Nazareth/ But your flood can be misunderstood.”

Hip-hop has been ascendant in popular culture since at least 1990, but how respected is it? Only two hip-hop albums have won the Grammy for Album of the Year: Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1999, and OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below (aka Outkast’s The White Album) in 2004. (If anyone at all can beat the pop juggernaut that is Taylor Swift’s 1989 in the 2016 Grammys, Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly– a complex, political, musically adventurous masterpiece with no obvious singles– is by far the only hip-hop album that stands a chance at becoming the third.) When music critics talk about the greatest songwriters of all time, do they think first of Dylan, or Rakim? McCartney-Lennon, or Chuck D-Flavor Flav?

After Kanye West pretended to interrupt Beck at last year’s Grammys during Beck’s Album of the Year acceptance speech, a debate ensued on social media. Who really was better, Beck or Beyonce? One meme that made its way around pitted the lyrics from Beyonce’s “7/11” (opening line: “Shoulders sideways, smack it, smack it in the air”) next to Beck’s “Blue Moon” (“I’m so tired of being alone/ These penitent walls are all I’ve known”), with the implication that a good vocabulary alone makes for great art. Nevermind that “7/11” was just a bonus track, or that the two songs have entirely different vibes. Comparing those two songs is unfair because every kid knows that singing along to Beyonce’s voice is fun. And not just that– it’s empowering. It feels powerful.

Kendrick Lamar performs on Austin City Limits; photo by Scott Newton / KLRU

Kendrick Lamar performs on Austin City Limits; photo by Scott Newton / KLRU

Kendrick Lamar makes you feel powerful. Kanye West is probably his closest peer in this regard, but his vibe is much more closed-off and abrasive, less effortlessly warm. Drake is as talented at constructing constant hooks, but doesn’t have the gravitas to reach into the heart of the human experience the way Lamar does. Lamar said on Friday night that making To Pimp A Butterfly was “therapy” for him. And as he performed, this too felt like therapy– a million ideas trying to fight their way out of the low-key leader of a jazz fusion/rock band, his face again and again connecting with individual people in the audience, making each one of them feel strong and capable and loved. In a way, he’s this generation’s Marvin Gaye. He has effortless cool and charm, technical virtuosity, and– this is the unusual part– a tendency to grapple with big, complicated themes, and to revisit them from different angles, over and over. He is political. He is intellectual. He is “conscious,” but not in a “This needs to happen, that shouldn’t happen” sense. He grapples with things. There were other Motown singers who got political, but none but Marvin Gaye made the political feel so personal. That’s what Kendrick does.

The jubilant refrain “We gon’ be alright,” from the song “Alright,” has been popping up this year as a chant at political protests around the country, especially those protesting police violence. A moment of hope in a dark couple years. At the Moody Theater Friday, some people in the middle of the crowd started chanting it before the band could even start the song. Kendrick broke into an amused smile, then led the whole crowd, telling us to get louder, then softer, then louder, then softer, then louder– it was hard, yelling as loud as he was making us, for as long as we were yelling it– and the effort felt profound, like we were all true believers, and that the use of our voices meant something.

 

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