Last night at the Kennedy Center, Kendrick Lamar walked onstage in all black, cross around his neck, hair in cornrows, his expression purposeful, dragging the base of his mic stand across the floor of the stage until he reached the center. When he got there and planted his feet, he stared at the mic, fidgeting and maneuvering toward it, as if he were a boxer sizing up his opponent, or Indiana Jones about to grab a precious artifact, while his band, the Wesley Theory, whipped up an anxious jazz groove. Then he snapped toward the mic and finally addressed his audience for the first time: “This! Dick! Ain’t! Free!”
Lamar’s second major-label album, To Pimp a Butterfly, topped the Billboard charts seven months ago. But several of its songs didn’t get a proper stage debut until Tuesday night, when the Compton rapper and his band performed with backing from the National Symphony Orchestra. Throughout 2015, Lamar has mostly played festival sets comprised of older material, with two or three songs from Butterfly sprinkled in. So when “For Free?” opened Lamar’s set, it marked the first-ever public performance of the playfully profane track, and most likely the first time anyone has said “This dick ain’t free” on the stage of the Kennedy Center.
If Kendrick Lamar needed a few extra months to memorize and rehearse some of the most intricate verses of his career before performing them live, it was worth the wait. Much of the album concerns a crisis of confidence that the rapper seemed to have, perhaps surprisingly, after the platinum success of 2012’s universally acclaimed good kid, m.A.A.d. city. The MC addresses “Mortal Man” directly to his fans, and it was thrilling to see him deliver those lyrics to them in person for the first time: “If I’m tried in the court of law, if the industry cut me off/If the government want me dead, plant cocaine in my car/Would you judge me a drughead or see me as K. Lamar?/Or question my character and degrade me on every blog?”
The evening opened with a brief performance by the Mellow Tones, a group of students from the local Duke Ellington School of the Arts who performed inventive a cappella arrangements of jazz standards. The audience greeted the nine talented teenagers with open arms, particularly when they ended their set with a performance of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” that resonated deeply with the themes the headliner would rap about a few minutes later.
Before Lamar appeared onstage, the NSO performed an overture, giving a quick demonstration of their volume and power. But once arguably the best rapper alive walked out and began working the stage with a tightly coiled energy, it was often easy to forget that there were dozens of musicians behind him. Then something like the ominous orchestration on To Pimp a Butterfly‘s hardest song, “The Blacker the Berry,” or the lush, dreamy strings on “These Walls” reminded you how vital this collaboration sounded.
Lamar had no hype man or backup singers, and never missed a word unless he was cueing the audience to rap a line for him. And though pre-recorded studio tracks often played along with the orchestra, Lamar sang many of the choruses himself, stretching his voice to deliver melodies sung on record by Bilal, George Clinton and others. But mostly he rapped his ass off, showcasing his wide array of styles and voices, from a hoarse, hectoring tone on “Hood Politics” to a panicked howl on “u.”
Lamar and the NSO threaded tracks from Butterfly and earlier in his career into a seamless suite with a narrative flow, sometimes employing snippets of songs as segues between full-length performances. One of his biggest hits, “Swimming Pools (Drank),” was just briefly previewed, with Lamar and NSO conductor Steve Reineke gradually speeding up the song’s tempo until it snapped into “These Walls.” The first half of “u,” an expression of the rapper’s darkest moments while making the album, was set up as a contrast to the triumphant performances of “King Kunta” and “i” that followed. Lamar performed the chorus of “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” but mostly riffed over the song, delivering a monologue about race and humanity. Sometimes the song fragments could be frustrating, though — the orchestra never sounded better than when playing the opening of “How Much a Dollar Cost,” but the passage only served as a brief transition into the next song.
When Lamar and his band returned to the stage for an encore, the audience, who rarely stayed in their seats for more than a couple songs at a time, were once again driven to their feet for the moment that the whole night had been building toward. To Pimp a Butterfly‘s current single, “Alright,” had been a fan favorite since the album’s release, but in recent months has taken on greater significance, becoming a frequent chant at protests against police brutality and racial inequality across the country. In the middle of a chorus, Lamar theatrically halted his giant backing ensemble, waving his hands and saying “stop, stop, stop, stop,” before addressing his band: “We ain’t never been here — I need you to kill it!” With that, the band leaped back in, and the orchestra responded, violins rising up louder than ever, drawing out the night’s climax for a couple more beautiful minutes.