WASHINGTON, DC — -The crowd had been bubbling since they opened the doors. About halfway through Kendrick Lamar’s performance Tuesday night with the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), the Kennedy Center exploded. “From Compton to Congress, set-trippin all around” ripped people out of their seats. The line from “Hood Politics” had a natural resonance with a Washington, D.C. crowd.
The event deflated the false division between the high-brow symphonics that are stereotypically the domain of wealthy old white people and the street-level pop of black youth. It’s the same thing Lamar’s been doing throughout his transformation from underground buzz kid to force of nature.
But before Tuesday’s show even got started, Lamar and the NSO invited some special guests out to ground the night in both Washington’s own artistic community and the urgency of addressing institutional disparities nationwide along racial and class lines.
As a prelude to the main event Tuesday, an excellent a capella group from a D.C. performing arts high school played a short, meaningful set. It closed with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Director Mark G. Meadows pointed out it remains as urgent a piece as it was when Gaye performed it in the same Kennedy Center hall in 1972, a year after the public arts palace opened.
The symphony fell in in short order, and conductor Steve Reineke led them through a rollicking overture of exactly the sort that would start any other night at the symphony.
Reineke grabbed a microphone to introduce Lamar with a flourish. Kendrick’s four-piece band filed out and plugged in. The man himself made Reineke wait just a moment longer before sauntering on in the kind of all-black ensemble that’s standard for a symphony player aiming to be heard rather than seen. After a thunderous ovation from the 2,100 attendees who’d been lucky enough to snag tickets from the Kennedy Center’s overloaded web system the week before, they got down to business.
“This. Dick. Ain’t. Freeee,” Kendrick clipped into the stand mic he’d dragged on stage with him a moment before. Choosing the frenetic, intricate “For Free?” as the opener — and making that line the first thing he said in the rarified air of the Kennedy Center concert hall — seemed a bit like a mission statement.
It’s a song that gives the orchestra’s horn section in particular plenty to do. That wasn’t always the case. The NSO served a shifting role across the 70-minute set. For about a third of it, the bulk of the sound came from Kendrick’s own players.
Where the orchestra did get big and carry songs, though, it subtly altered them — notably about 20 minutes later on “For Sale?,” the companion track to the confrontational set-opener on Lamar’s latest album, To Pimp A Butterfly. In your headphones at home, “For Sale?” is a gradually souring soundscape, the warmth and uplift of its opening vocal harmonies giving way to something sickly as a toothless, strung-out, imaginary Kendrick addresses Lucy, the temptress character who stands in for consumerism and other ills. But with the symphony carrying it Tuesday night, “For Sale?” took on a different feel, accelerating and soaring and brightening behind the personal decay and spiraling delusion that animates the verses.
For two NSO players, second violin Desimont Alston and timpanist Jauvon Gilliam, the show carried a special weight. Alston and Gilliam are the only two black men in the NSO.
The Kennedy Center is eager to expand its reach beyond the stereotypical arts-center member you might imagine (white, wealthy, and over 40), using shows like Kendrick’s and the “NSO In Your Neighborhood” series, where the symphony visits local watering holes and landmarks to lure new blood. The outreach shows have been fascinating for Alston, 62, who’s now in his 42nd season as a second-chair violin with the NSO.
“I never could’ve imagined doing [that] 20 years ago. NSO out on the club scene!” he laughed. “It was just an overwhelming success.” He, like everyone else involved in Tuesday’s show, hopes that by extending an invitation to people who might not perk up at the word “symphony,” the institution and its community can start to expand each other’s horizons. (A staffer for the Pops series told me the Center sold five or six times as many memberships in the day between the Kendrick announcement and members-only pre-sale as they do on a typical day.)
The violinist confesses ignorance about the rapper who he’s supporting. Alston — Desi, friends call him — still remembers clearly how his own early progression as an artist felt. His rookie symphonic year felt like being “a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”
In four decades with the orchestra, Alston’s witnessed generations of change in the NSO itself and in the broader D.C. area. Arriving in 1974, he lived in the city’s now thoroughly gentrified Logan Circle neighborhood.
“You’re coming home from a concert and you open up the elevator and there’s somebody dead in the elevator,” he said. It wasn’t quite the escape he’d had in mind while mastering the violin as a kid in Philadelphia’s roughest slums.
Both Alston and 36-year-old GIlliam, the NSO’s timpanist, remember playing at a similar Kennedy Center collaboration last season, commemorating the 20th anniversary of Illmatic with Nas at the helm. For Gilliam, who grew up listening to that generation of rap as a kid in Gary, Indiana at the peak of the crack epidemic, that one was reason to get hype.
Generation gap notwithstanding, the two said they have greatly enjoyed the neighborhood shows that the NSO’s been doing to win new audiences. And Alston doesn’t need to know word one about Kendrick to understand that Tuesday’s show was right on track with one of his own priorities for the company.
“The one thing I would really like to see more of, me being a black guy up there on stage where there’s only two of us, there’s not a lot of [audience] diversity,” he told me before the show.
Tuesday’s crowd should’ve had him beaming, then, at something approaching 60/40 black/white to my eye. And of course, everyone who turned up for a crowning achievement show by the guy who’s made songs like “Fuck Your Ethnicity” and “Complexion” brought a significant political consciousness with them.
A Compton kid bringing the house down at the Kennedy Center is perhaps evolution enough. But the collaboration with Alston, Gilliam, and the NSO is also a dramatic example of the rapper’s transformation from underground sensation to industry-moving kingpin.
Last fall, Kendrick Lamar got sued over a sample. A pair of jazz musicians argued that “Rigamortis” from his 2011 tape section.80 was a direct, unauthorized ripoff of their work.
The suit, which is reportedly on the verge of being settled this fall, reflects just how far away from celebrity and stardom Lamar’s career began. Back then he operated the way most rappers do their whole careers, picking a catchy piece of disembodied sound out of the ether and bending his ideas and artistry around stuff that originated in the lungs of people he’d never met.
No longer. Now the Compton kid with the relentlessly poetical bent and unapologetic fluency in street scenery is bending the musical world around him, starting right at the root. Live musicians bring his ideas to life all around him.
When producer and saxophonist Terrace Martin was lining up the recording sessions for this year’s To Pimp A Butterfly, he brought in heavy hitters — and Kendrick brought more out of them than they’d expected he would want, according to renowned pianist Robert Glasper. Saxman Kamasi Washington arranged strings and contributed his own horn. Thundercat’s bass work is essential to the sonic cohesion of the complex, sprawling, emotionally varied record. Larrance Dopson brought his percussive instincts to the lab too, and the murderer’s row of players and composers collaborated with Lamar and Martin in give-and-take fashion to deliver the sounds the emcee had in his head.
The resulting album seemed like a culmination of Lamar’s climb from a hustling breakout star grinding jewels out of whatever material was close to hand into something more akin to generation-defining bandleaders like Afrika Bambaataa, George Clinton, and James Brown.
Tuesday night took that progression even further, as Lamar moved one of the country’s grandest musical institutions around his own ideas.
With the orchestra behind him, already-scorching songs like “Institutionalized,” “These Walls,” and “Maad City” became frenzied. Marvin Gaye sounded very different floating through his own calls to action in this same room in ’72, no doubt. But Tuesday’s show represented a similar collision between ritzy D.C. scenery and a generational talent demanding the establishment’s attention.
Nothing on To Pimp A Butterfly could ever sound small. But with a hundred live musicians underneath it all, capable of tremendous volume and often delivering tonal accents that don’t come through in the same way in the original arrangements, certain stretches of the show became downright gigantic.
The album version of “u,” in which Kendrick’s friends excoriate him for failing them, comes with spare drums and mournful, quiet horns. Tuesday’s edition came across much grander, with an almost overpowering tide of strings and symphony horns replacing the jazz elegy familiar to people who bought the album.
The mood was still appropriately somber, a reedy and anxious squall pumping through the zig-zag of transparent acoustic shielding that separated the NSO from Lamar’s band. But it was a tangibly difference soundscape, seeming to crowd out any possibility of self-forgiveness that might lurk in the margins of the studio version.
Lamar himself seemed taken aback. He took a moment to compose himself after “u,” then told the crowd about how low he’d felt when he wrote the verse where a drunk friend blames him for his brother’s death and labels him something like a sellout. The quiet surrounding the brief bit of banter was gutting in contrast with the wall of sound he’d leaned into moments prior.
“And then I remembered,” he said, “that I’m a king.” And the orchestra broke into the stomping exuberance of “King Kunta,” the already-irresistible bounce of the song transforming into a stampede of cutting violins, knocking cello, and tooth-rattling bass.
“I’m from the hood. It was definitely hiphop and soul growing up in my family,” Gilliam, the timpanist, said. The soundtrack in his home ranged from the mellow urgings of Gaye to the intentionally menacing black nationalism of Ice Cube. “There was a shock value to that, but now in 2015 we’re in a place because of social media, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, it’s not so shocking because people actually see it. All people, white, black, purple, brown, everybody sees what the sad truth of it is. [Kendrick] doesn’t have to prep everybody anymore.”
That new awareness leaves Kendrick free to address the same persistent failures of the American criminal justice and economic empowerment institutions that were under indictment in all that gangster rap that Tipper Gore, Bill Bennett, and C. DeLores Tucker used to bring Congress down on the music industry in the 1990s. He can tackle those subjects without first having to establish the background scenery that creates gangbanging, militant black anger, and generations of capped ambition.
As that baseline understanding of the daily reality of police abuse in the black community spreads, it creates room for more abstract artistic appeals for change. The music video for “Alright,” one of the strongest singles from To Pimp A Butterfly, is a beautiful and odd collection of events, some painfully real-feeling and others like something from a fever dream.
A young man slips away from an officer trying to cuff him, and we see the cop’s gun burst in extreme close-up and slow-motion. Kendrick and crew role exuberantly down the street — or rather, five feet above it, born on the shoulders of four cops who carry the car from the wheel wells. At the end, one of those officers points an imaginary finger gun at Kendrick and mimes pulling the trigger, and the rapper falls bleeding and dying from his perch atop a highway lamp post.
It’s more like a film school project than a traditional music video, and it’s been celebrated for its ambition and provocative imagery. Its meaning is imprecise, meant more to provoke conversation than evoke exact a-means-b analysis.
That sits just fine with Gilliam. “I think he kept true to what he was feeling by showing some of the dissonance between the black people in the video and the police. But at the same time, part of the message of the video is ‘we gon be alright,’ so he’s trying to bring a positive message into the negative,” the timpanist said. “But there is a negative connotation that the police don’t really give a shit about what’s going on with us, and they’re going to treat us different.”
Each of the players has had his share of nasty encounters with cops. “Growing up in Gary, yeah, the police was everywhere,” Gilliam said, recalling a time he and his father were pulled over in his childhood because cops were looking for a similar vehicle. “They took him out of the car, handcuffed him, and had him face-down in the dirt on the side of the road while everybody passed. It was embarrassing and I’ll never forget it.”
The drummer credits his father’s encouragement of his musical talent with keeping him out of the kinds of trouble that has felled or jailed more than one of his childhood friends. The message, as it is for so many black children and parents, was the importance of being twice as good. “My dad taught me I have to be better, smarter, and faster than the next person to get the same stuff. That’s just the way we were raised,” said Gilliam.
It’s gotten him to the pinnacle of his profession. But that status, success, and effort only change so much for a man. In about six years living in D.C., he’s only been pulled over for “driving while black” once, he said. He held his temper, complied, and watched his car get towed away. “That was some bullshit. That sucked. But I went to court, and I won, and I got my money back,” he said.
Gilliam’s experience isn’t identical to his elder NSO colleague’s, but the two certainly rhyme. As a kid in Philadelphia in the 50s and 60s, Alston ran afoul of suspicious police “pretty much all the time,” he said. “The mindset on their part was, that can’t be a violin. And then they open it up, and it is. And then, of course, it can’t be my violin,” he said.
Not that it stopped once he’d proven the instrument was indeed his. “Believe me, when they were patting me down this was not patty cake. This was really hard. This was to provoke,” Alston said. “They were waiting for me to do or say something so they could beat my head in, and I didn’t give them that opportunity.”
Denying police an excuse to wail on him meant he’d eventually be sent on his way, back down the street toward rehearsal or a performance to play a delicate instrument with great precision amid understandably jangled nerves. “This is really what’s kept me sane: I leave it alone,” he said. “You’d never know when I got to the concert or to my lesson I’d have been stopped heavyhandedly by the police an hour before.”
Now nearing retirement, and teaching young musicians himself, Alston’s all too aware that his successful vault into the elite stratosphere of the performing arts offers no exemption from harassment, suspicion, and deadly fear. Even without any internet presence, the violinist follows the news closely enough to hear the same stories of black lives forever altered by police officers.
“Every other day something like this happens,” he said. “And it makes me aware that yeah, well, Desi, your day is coming again.” Being so versed in police interactions means he knows exactly how he’ll handle that day when it does come: With calm, silence, and caution. “I’m going to be very cognizant of how I present my license from my wallet” lest a cop mistake his wallet for a gun, said Alston.
“But beyond that, I can’t let it live for me. I can’t let it become part of me to the extent where I’m worried about it all the time.”
Alston’s defiant serenity might seem at odds with the open anger toward police abuse and official neglect that animates some of Kendrick Lamar’s most revered music. But it’s not so easy to box Lamar into such a narrow emotional palette.
Lamar is a dynamic musical mind, synthesizing a diversity of source material into something at once vintage and modern. The jazz, funk, and soul sounds that furnish much of the audio tapestry of To Pimp A Butterfly also carry thematic and emotional gravity with them. They crowd in alongside unquestionably modern sonic material, blending this century and the last just as Lamar’s lyrical content has always blended contrasting attitudes: Joy and rage, black power and black respectability politics, inward critique of the self and outward critique of society.
These dualities are part of what make his music so appealing. It’s an earnest attempt to reckon with internal conflict. For every Kendrick bar that indicts the police or the political system (“And we hate po-po, wanna kill us dead in the street for sure”) you can find one that points blame back at himself and his own neighborhood (“Why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street, when gangbanging make me kill a n**** blacker than me? Hypocrite”). Lamar took immense flak for an interview with Billboard where he seemed to suggest that the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri should cause black folks to look inward for solutions. He also earned huge praise for eloquently laying out how police harassment in Compton shapes young black minds and attitudes on good kid, m.A.A.d city.
For Jauvon Gilliam, the musical sources he hears on To Pimp A Butterfly also reflect that complexity. “I’m hearing Earth, Wind, & Fire, and Marvin Gaye, and James Brown, and all these sort of tidbits from a time where music was about love and coming together and being happy,” the NSO timpanist said. “Interweaving that, even if it’s just a little riff here and there — We’re going to be alright, even though sometimes we’re not because of the circumstances we’re put in.”
Those hard choices that neglect and poverty force upon black Americans are instantly recognizable in Lamar’s music, too. As a kid from Gary, whose foremost active musical ambassador is the gangster rapper Freddie Gibbs, Gilliam saw plenty of people wrestle with the same kinds of impossible choices that animate Kendrick’s music.
“If you don’t figure out what it takes to make it, to survive, your options are slim. Either find a job you don’t really like making minimum wage, then you’ve gotta find a hustle to supplement that. Or you just go the completely illegitimate route where you just make it happen whatever way you can. Those are just the grim realities of it,” Gilliam, who found his own path out through music, said.
Lamar’s blend of musical attributes rooted in a more hopeful era and lyrical content that’s blunt about how little has changed since gives the drummer something to identify with. “It’s like, yeah he grew up in Compton and yes it’s been a hard life and yes there’s some things he didn’t want to have to deal with, but at the same time I think he might have this yearning, this hopeless romanticism that people are inherently good.”
Lamar, of course, is far from alone in wedding street sensibilities to a raspy social consciousness in rap songs, and finding a diverse audience whose white members have an inherently limited understanding of life in black America.
Sometimes that knowledge gap can breed pain. Chicago’s Chance the Rapper offers vulnerable songs documenting the isolating plight of inner-city America, and is rewarded with ecstatic crowds heavy on white teens who sing along with every word, even the ones they know they shouldn’t. “Wonder if they know I know they won’t go where we kick it at?” Vince Staples asked on this year’s Summertime 06, about white fans who react exuberantly to his vignettes about pragmatic thuggery in Long Beach. Detroit’s mad genius Danny Brown got early support from a rap blogosphere that’s still very white in personnel and character, and seemed conflicted about the associations on 2013’s Old.
On Tuesday, three of the most energetic people in the whole room were standing dead-center in Kendrick’s eyeline, a trio of bouncing white teenagers who seemed to know every word of every song. One of them managed to partially deflate the atmosphere right at its peak, but for the most part it was a sideshow.
The room was hanging on Kendrick’s every flinch, every flick of an eyelid. The man is a magnetic performer, combining the crowdwork ethos common to any hiphop show with a James Brown-like physicality at the mic stand and command of the stage.
After nearly an hour of playing, Lamar and the NSO still hadn’t hit peak grandeur for the evening. That came on set-closer “The Blacker The Berry,” where the urgent clap and eerie electronic undertones of the album converted into a martial anthem. Movie soldiers have stormed bunkers to less compelling soundtracks. It was like Lamar’s angry and self-critical challenge had been injected with the brash pomp of a John Phillip Sousa march and the swirling majesty of a John Williams score.
Bows, applause, ovations, and a stage-left exit left the thousands in the room screaming for more, the wordless demand amplified back into the room by the precise acoustic engineering of the Kennedy Center hall. Lamar, Reineke, and their sound-armies obliged, returning to deliver an exuberant rendition of “Alright.”
Before they could get started, one of those ecstatic white teens in the middle of the orchestra section shouted out the song title in an imploring tone. For just a second, Kendrick cracked, grinning and looking down to his left.
“Let me have a moment of silence,” he said after a second. Save for a couple shouts, the room obliged. Lamar rejected a burst of applause, calling on everyone to just feel the moment around them wordlessly. There was a thrum to the air, the collective anticipation mixing with still-rattling eardrums.
The rapper seemed to swell with triumph as he took in the scenery before him and the excellence-crowded stage behind him. “We did To Pimp A Butterfly for these moments right here,” he said.
Like so many of his lyrics, it was a sentiment that could mean very different things. It depends who’s listening.