King Kunta's New Groove: Breaking Down Kendrick Lamar's Successful, Intimate Show
Photo by Ilya S. Savenok / Getty Images
Last night, Kendrick Lamar brought his intimate Kunta’s Groove Sessions tour to New York City’s Terminal 5. Marketed with throwback imagery, the tour has promised a more personal experience with Kendrick’s lush, jazz- and funk-indebted album To Pimp a Butterfly. Noisey editors Kyle Kramer and Craig Jenkins attended the show to see if it delivered on that promise.
Kyle: So Craig, this was your first time seeing Kendrick Lamar live. What were your impressions? Other than: A lot of 18-year-olds really like the song “Backseat Freestyle”?
Craig: My impression is that a lot of 18-year-olds really like the song “i.” Jokes. I enjoyed myself, but I was surprised at what songs popped and what ones didn’t. Thought “The Blacker the Berry” would go off but it kinda didn’t, at least among certain portions of the crowd... Mainly I was excited to see that there’s a generation of young rap fans hungry for hashtag “lyrics.” Impressed by technical prowess and excited to dig deep into peculiar turns of phrase. You hear they exist, but it was nice to be in the middle of a couple thousand of them for once.
Kyle: Yeah, “Hood Politics” was kind of unexpectedly crazy. Which I guess makes sense given what a great and high-energy song that is, but it’s kind of gotten buried as a potential single. I think that lyrical thing and the general vibe of To Pimp a Butterfly has put Kendrick at a really interesting juncture. Even though he’s always been a dense, cerebral, political rapper, good kid m.A.A.d. city had so many radio hits and launched him on such a long string of major touring dates that he took on a new role to many casual fans—such as the two (thoroughly obnoxious) dudes in front of me wondering how they had ended up at this concert sober. The stage for last night’s show was set up with sort of an old-school lounge aesthetic, and part of me wanted him to push that idea further still and really just indulge in the immersive soul and jazz atmosphere of the album. In a year in which Kendrick’s peer Drake has branded himself as King of the Memes, To Pimp a Butterfly has been a really great corrective to the round-the-clock social media commentary culture of hip-hop. I’d love to see him embrace that more—maybe play with a full jazz band and them really vibe out onstage—even if it meant alienating some of those people who might just want to show up at a Kendrick show just to get wasted. Maybe it’s unfair to ask that, but that’s just how I feel!
Craig: Re: the stage, I felt like it was supposed to be a seedy hotel, and I kept staring at the light display because it was deceptively simple looking but also faintly complex in execution. Meaning no, I was not entirely sober at the show. Ha! You’re right, To Pimp a Butterfly is this weird, introspective, jazzy album, and it’s crazy that it can occupy the space it as in an era where you usually have to pander to radio to get a leg up. Kendrick seemed shocked by it, too, in the segment of the show where he spoke to the audience about how impressed he was that his fanbase was able to send it top ten without any obvious singles. Of course, I’m one of those people who thinks "i" is the obvious single, but the dance party the audience turned into when he played it made me unhate the song. I’m glad I got to go to this because half the records we heard weren’t necessarily smart ones to play to a large audience. Not only was the record fearless, but the show was too. He did “Mortal Man”!
Kyle: I was converted to the church of “i” as well! But anyway, can I sound completely ignorant about what is probably really baseline musicianship for a second? How did they always manage to trigger the samples at exactly the right moment? That’s not like a guitar where you can play an eighth note faster or something if you come in at the wrong time. I was stunned that all the sampling worked so well and kept looking to make sure there weren’t secretly backup singers hiding onstage. Anyway, I say that to say: I’ve seen Kendrick Lamar’s good kid m.A.A.d. city show twice, and it’s incredibly tight to both its benefit and occasional detriment (this show was mercifully light on the hyping up different sections of the crowd schtick).
Last night was the same thing. There’s not a ton of room for variation (I could almost feel the sigh of disappointment when Jay Rock, who was obviously in the building, didn’t come out for “Money Trees”), which was what made that whole speech about his fans and about still feeling undeserving of his success because of institutionalized racism so powerful, even if he probably says similar stuff every night. It was so honest, and that’s why we love Kendrick. All of that feeling led into my other highlight, which was, if certainly a response Kendrick could probably predict, definitely unscripted: the crowd chant of “we gon’ be alright” right before the encore. Kendrick let it play out for a couple minutes, enthusiastically directing it from stage. Those are the kinds of moments you go to an “intimate” concert to see, and that was the moment that, to me, captured the unique emotional power Kendrick has right now. You’re not going to get that same kind of chant going for “Hotline Bling,” as good as that song is.
Craig: I think there’s a difference between playing “to” a crowd, which is what Drake does, and playing “off” a crowd, which is what I feel like Kendrick did at this show. It was kinda messy and a little odd (mostly because of the source material) but it didn’t ever stop feeling genuine. I think as an artist that’s a big draw on the festival circuit, Kendrick has gotten used to playing shows for people who aren’t really that familiar with the material, to having to win people over that don’t necessarily know what they’re getting when he walks on the stage. You could see him excited by playing a small room full of people who howl when he names off his pre-album mixtapes, referring to everyone as his “day ones.” That comfort allowed him to stretch out and get weird and pull songs out of the album that seemed tricky to execute live.
I was intrigued by the sampling aspect as well. I watched the show behind two guys somehow taller than me, and at one point I kept trying to wheel around and spot who exactly was playing sax, when the band was just a guitarist, bassist, keyboard, and drummer. Part of me feels like the way to pull off To Pimp a Butterfly live without bothering with stadiums is to bring out a full band, two sax players, and a gaggle of singers, but I get that in order to successfully make money playing a Terminal 5, it’s smart to pack light. There’s kooky twists and turns on the album that they pulled off by triggering samples that could’ve come off a touch more organically if they weren’t, like, sequenced ahead of time. Kendrick said throughout the show that this might be the last time we see any of these songs performed live, and I believe it. Makes you think… what’s he plotting next?
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.
Craig Jenkins is a contributing editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.