Why should someone care about Kendrick Lamar?”
That’s the question I was asked when I first pitched a column on the rapper’s stop at the Pepsi Center on July 29 to our newsroom.
Standing in line to get into the sold out show, I kept mulling the question over in my mind. If someone doesn’t like rap, if they only listen to country or classic rock or pop, why would what a 30-year-old from Compton, California, thinks, feels and sees in the country matter at all?
There’s no shortage of ways to consider the question, and a good place to start is the fact that the majority of the nation now listens to rap.
For the first time in the history of Nielsen, an information and data measurement company founded in 1923, rap and R&B are the top genres in the country in terms of album and song sales, and audio and video streams.
There are myriad reasons for the genre’s ascendancy, which is something I’ve written about before in this column. Suffice it so say, there is no genre more reflective of society’s challenges and opportunities, and the inequality and disenfranchisement still facing so many groups.
Looking at Lamar from a pure art and performance perspective, there are few musicians in any genre as in control of their art and creativity as he is, something he proved over and over during his hour and a half set on the 29th.
This is an artist at the peak of their powers — imagine Bob Dylan, James Brown, Bruce Springsteen and Jay-Z at their best, and you get a sense of how Lamar absolutely owned the Pepsi Center stage with the sheer force of his energy and art.
Minus a few dancers who performed during four of the 20-song set, it was just Lamar on the stage, rapping, singing and prowling back and forth with the ferocity of a prize fighter in their prime. There were some pyrotechnics throughout the show, but you could get singed off the heat of Lamar’s intensity.
A performance this tight and invigorating would wow anyone who loves music, regardless of any preconceived notions about rap.
But what really makes Lamar a once in a generation artist is the way he sees and translates the world into song — a blend of sacred and profane, earthy and heaven-looking, that incisively captures the duality of a country that seems more fractured than ever.
“DAMN.” Lamar’s third major-label album, which was released in April, is perhaps the purest distillation of his approach to writing, and during the show he performed two-thirds of the album’s 14 tracks. The show closed with the chest-beating and hard-earned braggadocio of “HUMBLE.,” but it also included “XXX.,” a heartbreaking examination of the divides in the country, and “DNA.,” which savages the way culture uses black artists and their work for profit and misinterpretation without engaging with those artists in a meaningful way.
Lamar’s gift is to present these ideas and observations in a way that is intimate and relatable to his listeners, regardless of their own backgrounds and experiences. Few artists discuss anxiety and depression in as real a way as Lamar does, evidenced by the fact that he has arenas of fans rapping along to favorites like “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “Money Trees,” as he examines topics that not all that long ago were ideas to be embarrassed by. He makes the listener feel understood and accepted, and that leads to one crucial feeling — hope.
And as the lights came on at the show’s end, and I looked around at people who, like me, we’re sopping with sweat and smiling, and I had my answer to the question.
You should care about Kendrick Lamar, because at his concert, I saw people from every race and background in one place, united.
You should care because he had 20,000 people screaming, “’We gon’ be alright!” at the top of their lungs.
You should care because, in that moment, he made everyone there believe it.
Clarke Reader’s column on how music connects to our lives appears every other week. A community editor with Colorado Community Media, he practiced runnin’ from fear, guess he had some good luck. Check out his music blog at calmacil20.blogspot.com. And share why you love rap at firstname.lastname@example.org.