He walks out wearing a white tee and an LA fitted. His backing band transforms the G-Funk synths into crunching guitars. He commands his absurdly large audience to jump and they all respond, including an old dude who looks exactly like Jay Pritchett from Modern Family. If you don’t know, now you know; Kendrick Lamar is a rock star. Above are two videos from Jay-Z’s Made In America music festival a couple weeks ago. The first is a documentary made about Black Hippy, Top Dawg Entertainment’s all star team of Kendrick, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock. The second is part of Kendrick’s set at the festival. They’re both essential in understanding the greatest group of rap talent our generation has seen. The documentary not only has great bits of concert footage from the Black Hippy world tour but also interviews explaining how they all met and why each of the characters are so compelling in the first place. The affection they have for each other, the dedication they have to the craft, and the competition that drives them all to new heights. But watch the concert footage and you’ll see an artist at the top of the game, at the top of his game, fully coming into his own. When I saw K.Dot back in October, it was the last stop of his BET Music Matters tour, a week before Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City came out. “Backseat Freestyle” had just been leaked a few days before but he didn’t play that or any new music (although he did bring out Dr. Dre for “Compton” which may be the greatest live experience I’ve ever had). Now he’s got a crowd of thousands singing along to the chorus, shouting “KENDRICK HAS A DREAMMMM” when told, and ruminating on the Eiffel-Tower size of his dick. His live show supports this change. Before he just rapped with his DJ, now he has a live band mutating his songs into stadium anthems, adding menacing piano lines to “Backseat Freestyle,” punk riffs to “Fuckin’ Problems” and soaring guitars to “Money Trees.” It’s like watching Michael Jordan win his first title.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Kendrick or TDE and it can seem a bit like overkill, but these guys are in their Pax Romana. Think about this; in three years (2010-12) Black Hippy has released TEN ALBUMS that have ranged from good to great to deserving-a-place-in-the-Pantheon. That’s not counting all the great guest verses they’ve given out. You can see the influences of their artistry everywhere. The best album of the year so far, Chance The Rapper’s Acid Rap, owes a heavy thematic debt to Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. J. Cole, Wale, and Big Sean have all released their sophomore albums this year, trying to replicate GKMC’s cohesiveness in an effort to prove their own artistry and have all fallen absurdly short. Schoolboy Q is playing Will Smith’s Hitch for all the awkward white guys trying to rap and somehow making Mac Miller and Macklemore cool (or at least listenable). The rest of the world finally took notice when Kendrick shouted out a bunch of his peers on “Control,” claiming to be on the short list of best rappers alive. taking the vacated throne of Biggie and Nas, and ethering all his major label competition. It’s fun watching the rest of the game scramble and try to keep up with the kid but the real people worth watching aren’t Kendrick’s mainstream opponents but the team working with him. Q’s Oxymoron is up next and looks incredible. Kendrick’s opening for Kanye West on his Yeezus tour and it’s sure to be great. Kendrick will get a chance to play to an even larger audience and step up his show to bloated heights. I can’t wait to see Kendrick live again in superstar status, but there is a fondness to that first concert. It’s like seeing The Beatles playing at the Cavern or Bruce Springsteen playing the Roxy. It’s a legend in the making.