Though our coverage of Kendrick Lamar is dominated by his albums, his live performances have become just as important, pushing hip-hop forward into exciting new territory. His recent appearance on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show was yet another demonstration—when it comes to a command of the spoken word, Kendrick is in a class all his own.
He started the shift at the end of 2014, first on Saturday Night Live, then as part of a power couple: Kendrick was the last musical guest on the Colbert Report, and the first on Stephen’s Late Show on CBS. In doing so, he joined the ranks of other landmark late night pairings—such as The Beatles and Ed Sullivan, or Radiohead and Conan O’Brien.
As a work of 21st century hip-hop, To Pimp A Butterfly stands in a league all its own.
And just as Radiohead defined the shape of music to come in 1993, Kendrick Lamar may well be forecasting the future of hip-hop. The Radiohead of Pablo Honey represented the end of grunge and the beginning of what would come to be called indie, and Kendrick is pushing hip-hop in similarly startling new directions. good kid, m.A.A.d. City was simultaneously a revival of an old form (West Coast gangsta rap) and the introduction of a powerful new voice. To Pimp a Butterfly also dabbled in old styles, notably the R&B of the Isley Brothers, the funk of Sly Stone and George Clinton, and the acid jazz of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. But as a work of 21st century hip-hop, TPAB stands in a league all its own.
He’s taken a similarly unique approach to his late-night performances. Instead of giving the viewers what they expect and what they want, Kendrick has repeatedly confounded expectations. On Saturday Night Live he performed with all black contact lenses and half-braided hair, dancing with a manic intensity while performing “i.” Subsequently, he performed unreleased, unheard music on The Colbert Report and The Tonight Show. While all tracks fit squarely within the jazz/funk/soul paradigm of To Pimp a Butterfly, they do more to point the viewer in the direction Kendrick is moving the art of live performance in rap.
While performing “Untitled” and “Untitled 2,” Kendrick stands center stage, largely immobile—except for the expressive accompaniment of his hand gestures. In both performances, he’s flanked by a bevy of live musicians and backup singers.
On The Colbert Report he performed in all black, wearing a black leather and fur jacket straight out of a ’70s blaxploitation film. He shared the stage (and the lights) with frequent collaborators—Thundercat on the bass, Anna Wise on vocals, and Terrace Martin, whose bright blue Dodgers cap provided the only speck of color in the foggy sea of dark tones, on the alto sax.
On The Tonight Show his accompanists are pushed into the background. He stands alone in the spotlight, dressed in a vintage ’90s L.A. look—an oversized open flannel worn over a black hoodie emblazoned with the phrase “with love.” On his feet he sports a pair of his new gang-harmony-promoting Reeboks.
Both performances feel more like jazz-inflected spoken word than traditional hip-hop, as if they were taking place in a tiny West Village café in 1966 instead of national television in the 2010s. Having said that, the two performances of new songs and the unique SNL performance of “i” before them build to fiery crescendos utterly unlike anything else, visually and sonically propelled by Kendrick’s forceful delivery.
This is a young man capable of moving multitudes with little more than the power of his flow—even if you don’t know the words.
By deemphasizing the beats and placing himself (unfiltered, unprocessed, largely unadorned) at the center of the performance, Kendrick gives new significance to the power of the word. The rhythms come from the ebb and flow of his lines rather than the drum kit, as words and spit fly from his lips in rapid fire succession, relentlessly driving the songs forward until Kendrick’s voice takes on the power of Khalid Abdul Muhammad’s at the opening of D’Angelo’s “1000 Deaths.”
The performances of unreleased material aren’t indicators of some brave new frontier that Kendrick hasn’t touched in his recorded work. Rather, they’re live, in-the-moment proof that he is this generation’s greatest MC. “Untitled” and “Untitled 2” don’t present a new Kendrick, or a different Kendrick, but rather a Kendrick at the height of his powers, a young man capable of moving multitudes with little more than the power of his flow—even if you don’t know the words.
As “Untitled 2” races towards its crescendo, Kendrick repeatedly riffs on the line “you don’t need to tell me that I’m the one.” While his verse on “Control” made waves for the flames he spat at basically everyone in the game, it is the mastery of these performances and not the smack that he talked that establish the validity of that concluding line. You don’t need to tell Kendrick, and you don’t need to tell it to anyone else either. He knows it, and we all know it. These performances only offer concrete proof: right now, Kendrick is unquestionably the one.