Kendrick Lamar & National Symphony Orchestra Join Forces at Kennedy Center Show: Review

Yassine El Mansouri

The art for Kendrick Lamar’s most recent album, To Pimp A Butterfly -- though designed to mimic the messy triumph of a Baroque tableau -- is actually one of 2015’s more uniquely American album covers. The black and white image features the rapper alongside a collection of men and children he knows from growing up in Compton (“since elementary,” as he put it). All shirtless, the group stares unflinchingly at the viewer, clutching fistfuls of money and bottles of malt liquor... on the front lawn of the White House.

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That intentional, beautiful dissonance continued last night (Oct. 20) at D.C.’s Kennedy Center (just a mile-and-a-half from that storied abode), where Lamar launched the closest thing he’s had to a tour since the album dropped back in March. The rapper has spent most of the year doing festival dates, where he’s stuck to songs off his studio debut good kid, m.A.A.d city as well as recent singles “i,” “Alright,” and “King Kunta.” Last night saw the rapper performing all but two of TPAB’s tracks, though, for a reverent crowd who caught every ad-lib (“what’s the yams?”) as though it were a screening of some cult classic. Like most things associated with Kendrick, it was far from your average hip-hop album release show -- not just because of the choice of venue, but the decision to use the National Symphony Orchestra as a backing band.

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Once the full orchestra was set up onstage behind clear plastic sound barriers (a traditional rock setup was laid out in front, and a DJ running the laptop was barely visible behind), conductor Steven Reineke took the podium to a rockstar’s welcome. No one really knew what to expect, and there was some mild confusion over whether to stand or sit within the sold-out crowd. The orchestra began a medley of Lamar’s beats, almost unrecognizable in their symphonic form -- but once the spine-tingling opening harmonies of “Alright” resonated through the room, rendered even broader by the vast string section, the cheering began. 

The opening medley was both evocative and reassuring for those worried that the results of the one-off collaboration might not live up to the hype. Kendrick, who made his grand entrance to the strains of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love,” was, as ever, unconcerned with the hype, as he walked onstage clad (just like his band) in all black and dragging a mic stand. 

He kicked off the show with hard-bop anthem “For Free?”, clearly relishing his role as bandleader as he signaled for horn stabs and cut-offs -- the resulting motion was somewhere between James Brown and Reineke himself. Continuing through “Wesley’s Theory” and “Institutionalized,” it became clear that TPAB was a natural fit for symphonic rendering -- after all, the recording has enough moving parts that getting all the people involved on stage would likely amount to at least half an orchestra’s worth of musicians.

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It wasn’t until “Backseat Freestyle,” though, that the Kennedy Center’s potential for lit-ness was fully exploited. The impossible-not-to-rap banger had the whole theater in on the “Martin had a dream” refrain, backed by the full force of the orchestra. “I see this ain't no formal event no more,” the rapper said, smiling at the arm-waving crowd. On older songs (he also performed “m.A.A.d city”), the size of the ensemble occasionally turned them into blunt force instruments, overheating the original sparse beats. TPAB’s constantly changing melodies worked more fluidly -- at times, the vastly different instrumentation was almost imperceptible.

Kendrick’s evolution as a performer was also on display during the hour-and-15-minute long set. His vocal control, maybe his most notable characteristic as an MC, has only improved with time -- he’s surpassed questions of technique and has no interest in relying on crutches or shtick, hence his plain and direct performance style (he barely danced, and took the mic out of its stand very selectively). Patently averse to the trivial, he acknowledged his biggest hit, “Swimming Pools,” by playing the beat -- but refused to rap it. When a loud fan yelled for “Alright” (which he reserved for his encore), he responded by asking for a moment of silence. As the performance progressed, with Kendrick rapping each song with mind-numbing intensity, it became clear that he'd rather people not understand (and thus, probably not like) his music than think he's about something he's not. 

Instead he drew out his music’s political ties (“from Compton to Congress” has never been so apt) and spoke frankly about the personal struggles that inspired his work. “Back to my true self, before the rage,” Lamar said before “m.A.A.d city.” “I was down, but now I'm up,” he added, after telling the audience that he “had a moment” while performing “u.” The only thing missing? The virtuosic collaborators who helped make the album so memorable -- Terrace Martin, Robert Glasper, and Thundercat (among others) are hard to replace, even with a symphony at your disposal.

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The whole performance felt a little like a rebuke of those critics who said TPAB was “not a real hip-hop album.” From the decision to collaborate with an orchestra to Kendrick’s mode of performing (standing behind a mic stand, speaking directly to the audience), little about the performance conformed to hip-hop norms -- which is exactly what he intended.

“I did good kid, m.A.A.d city for this moment,” the rapper told the crowd late in the set. “I wanted to go 10 times further for To Pimp A Butterfly. Where only a select few get to learn from it and understand it the way I do.”

Photography by Yassine El Mansouri

Kendrick Lamar & the National Symphony Orchestra - The Kennedy Center Album Review