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Kendrick Lamar takes the West Coast off standby

Kendrick Lamar performs during "The Pop Out — Ken & Friends," his June 19 concert event at the Kia Forum in Inglewood, Calif.
Timothy Norris/Getty Images for pgLang, Amazon
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Getty Images North America
Kendrick Lamar performs during "The Pop Out — Ken & Friends," his June 19 concert event at the Kia Forum in Inglewood, Calif.

When Kendrick Lamar released Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers in 2022, he was jittery with agitation. There were many reasons within the songs for him to be anxious, which spend hard-earned therapy hours working through trauma, but he seemed most perplexed by those outside of his process seeking his voice in their struggles. His perceived silence during the dog days of activism in the early pandemic was met with questions and criticism, and in the face of those broader discussions, he made clear he would not be goaded into action. On “Savior,” he responded: “The cat is out the bag, I am not your savior,” later adding, “I rubbed elbows with people that was for the people / They all greedy, I don’t care for no public speaking / And they like to wonder where I’ve been / Protecting my soul in the valley of silence.” He did not want the burden of speaking for the culture, and felt it wasn’t in his job description.

We as listeners are not entitled to any artist sounding off, especially when they are protecting their souls, and while it is fair to ask a socially aware rapper to use his platform as a megaphone for the issues bearing down on his community, I think often of the 2004 Dave Chappelle joke about Ja Rule and 9/11: We don’t need everyone to talk about everything; sometimes, they aren’t equipped. Everything is political, but music is not politics. Songs are just songs unless actively weaponized. Kendrick was right in the sense that his raps, while galvanizing, could not save the people moved by them. And yet, the sharpness of his rebuttal felt nearly antagonistic coming from the rapper who talked about a trip to South Africa giving him awareness and pride, who stared down Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera and who made “Alright.”

Tellingly, Kendrick did not perform a single song off of Mr. Morale at “The Pop Out,” his Juneteenth event last night at the Forum in Los Angeles, live-streamed by Amazon Music. The energy wouldn’t have fit the experience, which was not about avoiding the onus but sharing the platform. The significance of the occasion brought certain expectations: the Compton rapper embracing the moment in a way that he had not previously, speaking more directly to and for the “we” of “Alright” and “Not Like Us.” But in a grander sense, he seemed to be after a different kind of community organizing. The show quickly began to feel like a cookout he was sponsoring, where names like Remble and G Perico were familiar and welcome. Several generations of LA rappers made guest appearances, and Kendrick repeatedly talked about cultivating the new generation, hoping to sustain West Coast hip-hop across the next two decades. In his time of ascension, the most fearsome rapper working made a coalition of his crusade.

The event was broken up into three “& Friends” sets that seemed to build upon one another. After a DJ Hed set that brought out a colorful cast of lesser-known LA fixtures (Remble, Westside Boogie, RJMrLA, BlueBucksClan, Ohgeesy), “Not Like Us” architect Mustard, a pivotal West Coast player in his own right, set the tone for the rest of the night, the crowd reacting gleefully as the producer escorted noted locals through a handful of hits apiece. Some of those guests came with personal history: Mustard pointed out that Ty Dolla $ign taught him how to make beats before they launched into a song built on one of the first beats Mustard ever made, “Paranoid.” Later, before leaping through a mini-set with longtime partner in crime YG, he waxed nostalgic about living across from the Forum long before they got on, working on the album that would break things open for both of them, My Krazy Life. Blog-era staples (Dom Kennedy) rubbed shoulders with chart-topping anomalies (Roddy Ricch), and there were particularly grand receptions for two artists on the outer edges of the LA hip-hop scene: the guitarist turned surprise sensation Steve Lacy and the Odd Future auteur Tyler, the Creator.

The “friends” Kendrick had in mind for his own circling of the bases seemed to consider the team-building that made his run possible. Mid-set, he reunited the original TDE foursome Black HippyJay Rock, Ab-Soul, ScHoolboy Q and himself — by bringing each rapper up individually to receive a well-earned salute from the crowd. The gesture was cathartic for a certain kind of rap fan. Kendrick cut ties with TDE in 2020 to start pgLang with former label co-president Dave Free; he hasn’t made a song with another Black Hippy member in years. But rounding up the gang and taking a little tour of a few songs from the glory days seemed to bring an almost childlike delight out of him — playing hype man for Jay Rock during “Win,” which is like stadium catnip, and the freaky Mike WiLL joint “King’s Dead,” and teaming up with Q for the hard-bopping “Collard Greens.” (The reunion’s deep sense of camaraderie could have only been improved by an impromptu run-through of the “Black Lip Bastard” remix.) When Kendrick rocked “King Kunta,” the others danced around the stage like no one was watching, with the that’s my jam! enthusiasm of a favorite song suddenly spilling out of a boombox.

This symbolic act, gathering the pillars of one of rap’s most important indie movements of the last 25 years, was clearly a microcosm of the evening’s larger theme of cross-color solidarity: coming together in awe of what was built collectively, and looking to its foundations as evidence of a monument whose peaks could reach even higher. “This is unity at its finest,” Kendrick said at one point, having brought dozens of Los Angeles figures onto the stage for a group photo that called to mind 2005’s “Great Day” shoot in Atlanta and the 1958 Harlem jazz roundup that inspired it. “For all of us to be together onstage, that s*** is special. Everybody on this stage got fallen soldiers.” But it was hard to overlook the fact that the thing unifying the coast in this moment was not love but hate, and Kendrick, the self-proclaimed biggest Drake hater, was primarily operating in his capacity as speaker for the culture in his personal war with the Toronto high roller. If the matter wasn’t settled before, then it certainly is now.

In that light, it was striking how many lines from old Kendrick songs now read like disses, in the context of a show that often played like a block party interrupting a wake. As Kendrick paraded the audience through hallmarks of his career — his first hit (“Swimming Pools”), his first No. 1 (“HUMBLE.”), his blockbuster soundtrack (“King’s Dead”), his American anthem (“Alright”) — he was also taking them on a guided tour past a corpse, and so every time a lyric rang off that matched the tenor of his animosity, the words felt retroactively prescient. “Most of y’all throw rocks and try to hide your hand / Just say his name and I promise that you’ll see Candyman.” “I can dig rappin’, but a rapper with a ghostwriter, what the f*** happened?” “You ain’t really wild, you a tourist.” “I don’t do it for the ‘Gram, I do it for Compton." I kept seeing Drake’s face in so many of the verses. Of course, the targeted diss tracks were right there in the rotation, in conversation with Kendrick’s rise to top dawg. Choosing violence, he opened with “Euphoria” and performed every Drake diss except “Meet the Grahams.” Each one punctuated an otherwise raucous set full of crowd-pleasers that crescendoed into a performance of “California Love” with Dr. Dre. When Dre paused his exit from the stage to utter the words “I see dead people,” it felt like the spark setting off a powder keg that had been waiting to blow all night long. Kendrick, sensing the moment, did not let it slip past him.

“Not Like Us” commanded its own portion of the show, where it rang out like a clarion call. He played the song five times in a row, each rendition more jubilant than the last. When he ran it back the first time, after holding onto the “A minor” line for dear life, he let the crowd rap the verse word-for-word as he bobbed around the stage, encouraging them to shout “Certified Lover Boy, certified pedophile” and drag that vowel to the moon and back. By the fourth run, Mustard had led a convoy of people onto the stage. As they came streaming to Kendrick’s side, the camera caught several of their faces: many of the performers from across the day, the NBA stars DeMar DeRozan and Russell Westbrook, the radio host Big Boy. The effect was the sensation that all of Los Angeles was on stage with him — “Bloods, Crips, Pirus,” as he put it. “Show the world this.” By the time they took that group photo, it seemed as if they had.

When “The Pop Out” was all over, “Win” felt like the most fitting summation of the night. The song’s battle cry — “You either with me or against me, ho!” — rang true for a rapper who had seemingly rallied the entire world, its ultimatum answered in the overwhelming support shown for his cause on this day. It was a resounding win for him, of course, but the night also felt like a win for regional music, its distinct style and sound and swagger, a win for an unscalable kind of hip-hop that is supposedly being blotted out by more centrist hip-pop, and a win for the culture, which Kendrick is so adamant about speaking for now. Sometimes, it just takes the right opportunity.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Sheldon Pearce
[Copyright 2024 NPR]