“I’m having a good f—ing time,” Kendrick Lamar told the 60,000-strong Essence Festival crowd in New Orleans Sunday night (July 3), sounding happy and a little relived.
After all, this is an artist who has yet to stage his own arena tour, presenting his idiosyncratic, decidedly radio-unfriendly music ahead of the hip-hop nostalgia nucleus that is the Bad Boy Family reunion in a stadium far from home. Last year, the rapper struggled to hold on to the audience as he closed out the festival’s final night. But this year, freed of headlining responsibility, Lamar (often characterized as serious, a description supported by the complexity of his music) let loose.
Walking on to the unforgettable ascending chords of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love,” Lamar charmed the crowd, smiling with practically pageant-ready abandon. He’s never been one for posturing — most rappers’ default mode — but to see him jubilantly calling out fans he recognized in the audience, offering quick freestyles in their honor, was surprising to anyone familiar with his intensely choreographed and immersive performances at the BET and Grammy Awards.
He even gave brief insights into his process, something he’s been opening up about slowly in response to To Pimp A Butterfly’s critical acclaim.
“That jam session shit, it’s an L.A. thing,” he said before performing ensemble pieces “These Walls” and “Complexion.” There were even rare moments of self-congratulation — Lamar punctuated the “Hood Politics” line, “Obama say what it do,” with a quick “Ha!” Since releasing the song, he’s met Obama, who loves his music. The day following his Essence set, he was headed to the White House for a Fourth of July performance on the South Lawn.
Seeing Kendrick so relaxed, though, seemed to be a function of the audience as much as anything else. Essence is a festival devoted to the cause of empowering black women, whereas Hot 97’s Summer Jam — its closest analog, as far as stadiums Kendrick’s performed in — is a competitive, make-or-break spotlight for hip-hop’s A-list. Lamar’s music is perfectly in line with Essence’s mission, which he drew out with his explanation.
“While we’re looking out in this crazy ass world, we have to keep the faith [religion is part of the vast majority of Essence performances],” he said before presenting “i.” “But most importantly, we have to love our motherf—in’ selves.” Everyone present knew exactly which “we” he was referring to — and that in itself was cause for celebration.