Kendrick Lamar wore a blue prison uniform, chains, and shackles on stage at the 2016 Grammys, where the rapper, his all-black dance crews, and his saxman, Terrace Martin, performed the most important music of a generation. At a primetime awards show bogged down by ballads and tributes, with minimal rhythm, Lamar lit the night with bonfire pyrotechnics. He performed a medley of his two recent hits, “The Blacker the Berry” and then “Alright,” followed by the third installment of his live untitled freestyle series, with a silhouette of the African continent as his backdrop; the Sahara read “Compton.”
Lamar's insurgent anthems, his latest music videos, and now his performance Monday night all provide a new, 21st century blueprint for pop music as activism. “I want you to recognize that I'm a proud monkey,” Lamar rapped to the largely white, black-tie crowd at the Staples Center.
On stage, Kendrick Lamar and Hamilton were the highlights. Lamar went in to this year's Grammy ceremony with 11 nominations and walked off with five wins. On the strength of To Pimp a Butterfly, one of the most provocative albums in recent memory, Lamar earned the official, mainstream accolades that many rap fans suggest he's been due for a few years now. In fact, last night's award tally is a revenge of sorts for Lamar, who lost the Best Rap Album category to the white boy Macklemore in 2014.
In an interview with Complex late last year, following the Recording Academy's announcement of its 2016 nominees, the Grammys' Head of Awards, Bill Freimuth, pledged greater diversity among future generations of Grammy voters, and improved genre discretion from the nomination committees. “Year by year, hopefully, they’re getting better, less predictable, and less biased toward any particular style of rap,” Freimuth said.
The Recording Academy's perceived bias against substantial hip-hop—as opposed to pop crossover—also makes Lamar's big wins a coup for complex, ambitious musicianship and “classic” status. (In his remarks to accept his Rap Album of the Year Award, Lamar shouted out Snoop Dogg and Nas, who've been nominated a couple dozen times but never won a single Grammy.) This year, Lamar roundly bested Kanye West, Dr. Dre, Drake, Nicki Minaj, Big Sean, and J. Cole for a handful of awards, including Best Rap Performance, Best Rap Song, and Rap Album of the Year.
Lamar also earned a Grammy for his guest verse and appearance in Taylor Swift's music video for her hit single, “Bad Blood,” and it so happens that Swift beat out Lamar (and others) to win Album of the Year for 1989.
Bey basically said fuck white ppl and their thoughts pic.twitter.com/fpeJnME47D
— BITCH IM BACK (@TonyJCole_) February 16, 2016
In primetime and backstage, Lamar's dancers courted whatever controversy they may have been destined to provoke. Beyoncé, who presented the award for Record of the Year, has braced such backlash to her recent single, “Formation,” a black power pop anthem that's irritated so many white conservatives in the past couple weeks since the release of the song and its music video. “Art is the unapologetic celebration of culture through self-expression,” Beyoncé told the crowd, in tacit defense of her own art and in solidarity with artists like her, and like Kendrick Lamar.
Just as some notable political figures have recently taken issue with Beyoncé's supposed antagonism of American police, Lamar amended the pre-chorus of “Alright,” skipping the bit where he otherwise raps, “We hate popo when they kill us in the streets.” Toward the end of his set, once he transitioned from performing “Alright” into his untitled freestyle, the network censors seemed to lose pace with Lamar's furious, spitfire delivery in tribute to the late Trayvon Martin. “Say that it sounds distorted, but they know who it was,” Lamar rapped. “That was me yelling for help.”