For a big star looking to fill a big room with a big sound, Kendrick Lamar knew he was in the right place.
He exuded vibes of comfort and purpose from the Kennedy Center Concert Hall stage on Tuesday evening, as if rappers perform alongside the National Symphony Orchestra every night of the week — or at least making it look as though they should.
Things got noisy during this anomalous 75-minute sound clash that culled heavily from Lamar’s recent opus, “To Pimp a Butterfly.” But the 28-year-old rap-legend-in-progress never allowed his confidence to be drowned out in the din. He seemed certain about every syllable he released into the air, certain that the weighty messages they contained were reaching the right ears.
He told Tuesday’s capacity crowd of 2,500 that he had made “To Pimp a Butterfly” for a “select few,” but earlier in the performance, his stage banter made it seem as if that exclusive circle of listeners could include any person of any race or any background. “At the end of the day,” Lamar said, “we ain’t nothing but God’s children.”
The fact of the matter is that some of God’s children live and breathe hip-hop while others do not, and Lamar is now in the tricky business of fulfilling the expectations of both constituencies. He’s an agitator who remains deeply concerned with audience perception — a predicament that can make his every move feel like an act of subversion or a compromise. That includes a one-off gig with the NSO, too. Had Lamar come to the Kennedy Center to deliver some radical music in a room where it’s not often heard? Or was he seeking validation in the halls of high culture?
Make no mistake, “To Pimp a Butterfly” is already high culture — it’s hip-hop at its most sophisticated, furious, overwhelming and intimate. Released earlier this year, the album was greeted with wide, passionate acclaim for the precision of its lyricism and the conviction of its politics, both of which attacked the systemic racism that continues to warp the shape of 21st-century American life.
You can hear it all most forcefully on “The Blacker the Berry,” Lamar’s most lacerating song both onstage and on record: “It’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society/That’s what you’re telling me, penitentiary would only hire me,” he rhymes. “Curse me till I’m dead/Church me with your fake prophesizing that I’mma be just another slave in my head.”
Since the album dropped in March, that society that Lamar was rapping about has remained senselessly cruel. Freddie Gray took a lethal ride in a Baltimore police van. Sandra Bland died in a Texas jail cell. Nine people were gunned down in a South Carolina church. And so this music is sticking with us, not just on its own merits, but because our nation remains an insane and unjust place.
But just as the march of time has made “To Pimp a Butterfly” feel more consequential, the album’s flaws continue to chafe in equal measure. Lamar obviously shouldn’t be punished for his ambition, but his music often feels as if it’s doing everything in its power to impress you with its technicality, its thoughtfulness and its deep-deep depth. It can sound like music that’s trying to be important instead of just being.
Is that a Kendrick problem or a virtuoso problem? Virtuosity gives an artist great power over the listener, but it also leaves him exposed. Tremendous skill can extinguish the ambiguity in music, making everything visible — and everything visible can be scrutinized.
And while Lamar does plenty of self-scrutinizing in his lyrics, he often comes across as an artist weighed down by the burden of his own greatness. Or maybe he’s just shouldering the impossible expectations of those who see him as rap’s lone savior, fighting the good fight that Drake, Kanye West and other celebrity-minded rap stars appear unfit for.
Our collective faith in him can be complicated by other factors, too, including his Christianity, which likely helps him maintain humility in light of his immense talent, and his corporate endorsement deals, which certainly help him monetize that immense talent. So to believe in Lamar is to believe in someone who believes in God and capitalism, but presumably in that order.
“Loving you is complicated,” he knowingly declares into the mirror on “u,” a song he performed Tuesday with an almost frantic intensity. “I place blame on you still, place shame on you still,” Lamar rapped. “Feel like you ain’t s---, feel like you don’t feel.”
This was a powerful moment, but a difficult one to actually hear. More often than not throughout the performance, the music swelled into a vague, high-decibel fog, with the symphony — conducted by Steven Reineke — forfeiting its nuance to Lamar’s way-too-loud backing quartet and a series of pre-recorded supporting tracks that should have been left at home.
Thankfully, the musicians established some breathing room for the rapper’s most potent new songs — “King Kunta,” “The Blacker the Berry” and an encore performance of “Alright” — each of which eventually surged in predictable but deeply satisfying ways.
As for Lamar himself, he spent most of the night with his feet planted behind a microphone stand, using his hands to point and punch, as if he was steering the words he had just let loose, winding them up, tossing them aside, wrestling them to the ground. He didn’t swap out the curse words in his lyrics like he does when he performs on television — even when the musicians behind him went loud and blurry, he stayed faithful to his material as it burst from his mouth.
Because maybe this was just another night in a world beyond his control, with Lamar sticking to the strategy that has worked all along: projecting his purest, truest, most virtuosic self.