For the first time ever, 2017 was the year that hip-hop reigned supreme and overtook rock (yes, that ageing stalwart is still kicking apparently) as the most popular genre in US music. Take a bow, friends. Or get on board soon to be even friendlier-friends.
Some of my favourites have all been late influencers in this success – Kanye’s divisive celebrity, Drake’s everyman commerciality and Nicki Minaj’s feature on every-one-and-a-half-songs.
Much as I love them, the most satisfying and faith-in-the-universe-restoring part for me is that Kendrick Lamar’s authentic credibility is also killing it with the masses – he was the second highest selling artist of last year.
Kendrick has been a hero of mine since he released Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. His music was a fresh take on slickly produced hip-hop with an introspective, ambient and smooth toughness to it. He peeled back the layers and showed you around life growing up in his home of Compton.
And of course, the man can rap around a turn of phrase and use his voice as an instrument seemingly like no other.
I saw him flex that muscle performing G.K.M.C. twice at the time.
The first time was at an in-store at London’s Rough Trade records on Brick Lane. Just me and about 100 others seeing him perform three short but mega-sweet tracks from that album. Then he signed our CDs and I tried to act all cool but my shaky hands gave away the 13 year old fangirl-style starstruck adult boy lurking barely beneath the surface.
As you’d expect he played Backseat Freestyle and Swimming Pools (at least that’s what I remember). Then, unexpectedly but thankfully, he closed off with Money Trees, which was and still is my favourite from that album.
It was unexpected not because it’s not a brilliant song. It just didn’t seem like an obvious track that the general public would expect from a three song list.
That doesn’t matter. Not only was Money Trees my favourite song, it was obviously one of Kendrick’s which only validated my delusion that we are in fact kindred musical spirits.
The second time was in Bristol at a slightly larger – by not much – venue, which my friend and I schlepped to because London was sold out.
There he played a longer set of highlights from G.K.M.C. and his previous mixtape, Section 80. Like this one.
Since these gigs more than five years ago, Kendrick has obviously exploded to – rightfully – become the crowning glory and master of MCing we know him as today. Over this same time, my fandom has similarly exploded in just about equal proportions.
I don’t know anyone who argues with the fact that Kendrick is this generation’s greatest rapper and the most important artist in that genre right now.
Sure, Drake sells more and Kanye’s relevance is unavoidable thanks to his continual reinvention in his music (and any inch of pop culture he can launch himself into), but that’s what makes Kendrick such a diamond.
He doesn’t seem to be chasing anything but the truth in the stories he tells. Sure, Humble was probably a grab for his first ever chart topper and it not only worked but didn’t feel like a novelty he sold his soul for.
Kendrick seemingly commands a universal respect I can’t recall seeing since the days of Michael Jackson.
My third time seeing Kendrick was on Monday night at London’s second biggest indoor music venue.
You’d think with a capacity of 20,000 and his now-chart topping status that those intimate performances I had in yesteryear were about to be bowled over with a massive stadium show. Right?
Yes but no.
Somehow, this magnificent being rode solo on the stage, except for the odd martial art-ist cutting some moves with Kung Fu Kenny.
Beyond that, it was all and only Kendrick.
My favourite concert game is guessing what they’ll play first. I correctly guessed DNA because it’s the moment DAMN. knocks you for six.
With it, Kendrick burst off the blocks and set an explosive atmosphere that stuck thick throughout the whole set.
After following that with another DAMN. highlight, Element, he then lavished us with King Kunta, the universally beloved from To Pimp a Butterfly. It was as joyous and buoyant as you’d expect live.
He even covered Collard Greens from the criminally underrated Schoolboy Q before turning to the two most crowd-favourite tracks from GK,MC – Swimming Pools and Backseat Freestyle. I thought this might mean my dreams of hearing Money Trees were dead and buried.
But I shouldn’t have lost faith in our musical kindredship. Just a few tracks later, there it was – the Money Tree shot. It was both vindicating and soul-rewarding. What a brilliant piece of music it is.
According to the internet, Kendrick played 20 god-DAMN. tracks that night. I have no idea how long he played for because we were all ‘levitate-levitate-levitate’-ing beyond anywhere that time exists. It went as quickly as all of life’s best things do but it felt satisfying and sumptuous nonetheless. He treated us, big time.
Surprisingly, Money Trees wasn’t my absolute favourite of the night (I do hate to choose).
That honour goes to Alright, one of the best from To Pimp a Butterfly. It absolutely blew my freakin’ little mind.
I don’t know if there’s extra oomph in its impact after becoming the rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement but the punch that song packed on the night was without peer.
The man is gifted. I’m not just talking about his supreme skills on the mic, or his transformational vision and the delivery of his music.
There was something otherworldly about seeing him, and him alone, on that stage. In a gigantic would swallow-most-people-whole stadium, no less.
He cut a powerful figure, looking strong, humble and simply downright brilliant.
At a time toward the end, the crowd was giving encore levels of cheer. He just stood thereand smiled, soaking it all in. Not an inch of arrogance presenting on his person. Just a beaming humble satisfaction.
It was like connection was his ‘thing‘. To share those stories and his music with a massive audience.
Whenever I leave a concert, there’s usually one song I want to play over and over because it hit a new chord, or reinvigorated an existing one.
On the train home, i played DAMN. end to end and then again when I got home.
Despite my favourites on the night, it only proved my adoration for this man and his complete body of work is completely founded.