We Gon' Be Alright!
On very few occasions have I walked out of concert feeling as if I had truly witnessed a pivotal moment in hip hop's history.
The first time I felt this way, Kanye West and Jay Z had just blessed me with my first rap concert, setting Madison Square Garden ablaze with the decadent orchestral strains of Watch The Throne. In the wake of the devastating 2011 recession, their magnum opus felt like an important statement of defiance; it was confirmation that the underdogs had won. Their 16-track ode to opulence and the power of ambition served as the soundtrack to a thrilling era of innovation and excellence for the millennial generation. Their performance had been a living, breathing iteration of the new American dream.
The second time was on a rainy February night in 2013. A young, hungry, and determined Kendrick Lamar had just finished rapping ferociously through the extensive catalog he had built quietly over the course of several years. good kid, m.A.A.d city, his universally acclaimed debut album, had been released just a handful of months earlier, and the Compton native's popularity was growing at an uncontrollable pace. To his own shock and gratitude, he had sold out New York City's now-demolished Roseland Ballroom in a matter of minutes, and quickly felt the need to add a second show to accommodate his clamoring fanbase. The opportunity to see Kendrick perform in the early stages of his career is one that I will always be grateful for, as I was able to watch him rap with a magnetizing zest I cynically thought would fade as he grew more famous.
This past Monday night, he put my cynicism to bed.
Image by Jason Speakman
While performing to a diverse crowd of 3,000 of his most dedicated fans, Kendrick exhibited the same passion, intensity and soul that he had shown in 2013; he evidently had not become jaded after all. These traits took a new form as he ran through the bulk of his brilliant new album To Pimp a Butterfly, channeled towards spreading a message rather than towards proving himself to the hip hop community.
Throughout his career, the humble MC has consistently been more concerned with the quality of his musical output than anything else. Completely unfazed by fame, Kendrick has stayed out of the limelight and continued to live modestly. Despite being in the perfect position to become one of the most massive crossover acts hip hop has ever seen, he instead opted to follow up good kid m.A.A.d city with an unconventional, brutally honest evaluation of race relations in the United States.
To Pimp a Butterfly is the antithesis of a commercially appealing rap album. Challenging, highly conceptual, and at some times dissonant, To Pimp a Butterfly is not the type of album one would expect to find atop the Billboard 200 chart.
It is also not the type of album one would expect to be performed from a comfortable distance in a large arena, which is precisely why he brought it to Terminal 5, one of New York's most intimate venues. Backed by an impressive four-piece band and lit by a neon sign reading "Pimps Only," Kendrick Lamar performed as if his life depended on it. Bouncing around the stage with an incredible amount of stamina and purpose, Kendrick brought the urgency of To Pimp a Butterfly to life. He took special care not to cut any corners with his performance, rapping with a calculated precision and never failing to enunciate a single syllable perfectly.
“They call this the album of the year, album of this generation, but for me it was therapy,” he said of To Pimp a Butterfly midway through the show.
Considering how the sixteen tracks of his politically-charged record have taken on important lives of their own as rallying cries of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is overwhelmingly evident that the album was therapy not only for him, but for the millions of Americans who feel at odds with today's political climate. The album serves as endlessly important documentation of contemporary racial tensions.
Despite the weighty subtext of his material, Kendrick's performance at Terminal 5 left the crowd feeling hopeful and uplifted; it left each individual feeling as though they had just been a fundamental unit in a movement that stretches far beyond music, and rightfully so.
The most captivating moment of the night occurred as the concert drew to a close. Completely unprompted, the crowd began chanting "we gon' be alright!" in flawless unity following Kendrick's departure from the stage. The sheer beauty of the moment quickly inspired him to return and playfully guide the crowd in an Isley Brothers "Shout!"-esque exercise. For ten minutes, the entire venue was united by empowerment, resilience and hope. After a tumultuous year of highly-publicized social injustice, the crowd found solace in Kendrick's music and in each other.
"I’m not saying I’m gonna change the world," Tupac once said, "but I guarantee that I will spark the brain that will change the world."
Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Kendrick Lamar.