It's not just a meme or a joke that 2016 was the worst year in the history of the world. Kendrick Lamar warned us all back in March, on the first track of his compilation album untitled unmastered, which is comprised of a series of “Desolation Row”-style apocalyptic scenes:
Backpedaling Christians settling for forgiveness
Evidence all around us the town is covered in fishes
Ocean water dried out, fire burning more tires out
Tabernacle and city capital turned inside out
Public bathroom, college classroom’s been deserted
Another trumpet has sounded off and everyone heard it
"The beat just did that for me," Lamar said. He was in his tour bus outside Music Hall of Williamsburg last week just before headlining a concert. “The beat sounded chaotic, so freestyling was just the first thing that came to mind. It wasn't any premeditated kind of thing."
Like Bob Dylan, Lamar isn’t for much introspection or close reading of his lyrics. He had performed the same set in early December during Art Basel Miami Beach at an even more incongruous location, the Faena Art Dome, for an even more privileged crowd that was drenched by the time he was finished, and he again deferred credit.
"You gotta get them out of their element," Lamar told me on the bus of the Miami performance. "Everybody coming out there looking like they got their best clothes and stuff? You gotta tell em: 'We're all getting sweaty tonight.'"
He may have been channeling a preacher vibe but, "It's different energies,” he continued. “I don't have to channel anything, I"m getting the energy from the crowd. Whatever these people are going through, that's what I'm going off of when I'm on the stage."
Lamar's prophetic qualities are offset by his humility, and his low key, I-guess-you-have-to-call-it Christianity. When The New York Times asked if he knew “Alright” would become a Black Lives Matter anthem when he was recording it, he similarly passed the buck saying, "I credit that to Pharrell, for being able to present an arrangement and to inspire me to do a record like that."
Still, you got the sense that even in the most dramatically gentrified neighborhood in New York, even at a show staged by American Express, the energy directed towards this Comptonite–who once said in a radio interview never to have met a Caucasian before "middle school, high school"–was more demanding than giving.
In light of the darkness of the past year, just as a Queens real estate huckster prepared to take the White House, people seemed to want some kind of guidance on accepting or protesting or, at least, finding some positivity in whatever horror comes next.
Lamar offered few clues but the concert, qua concert, delivered. In Miami, he wore a T-shirt that read "The Good Life." In Brooklyn, he wore one that read, on the back, "Rob From The Rich Give To The Poor. He's often called a rapper but it's hard to say that's what he does exactly, especially live, when his band finds new dimensions by emphasizing the songs' funk and rock qualities, the end result sounding a little like Rage Against the Machine.
In concert, his range was vast. The jam "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe" sounded just like church, as a video of Bill O'Reilly's Inside Edition freakout played in slow motion on the screen behind the stage. (Other clips borrowed from speeches by Ronald Reagan, Michael Jordan layups, a long hold on Prince's eyes flashing dramatically from some perfectly positioned light falling across them.)
On the bus, Lamar and I discussed a section of Ta-Nehesi Coates' latest essay, “My President Was Black,” where Coates points out that even as a politician President Obama never viewed his blackness as a hindrance. “As a child, Obama’s embrace of blackness was facilitated, not impeded, by white people,” like the president’s mother, Coates writes.
Lamar, too, embraces everything that comes with his community, positive and negative."It's important for the record to bring up the idea and the concept and have the conversation around the music, for my fans to listen and actually have an opinion around it. The pros and cons, together, he said, "either manifest a solution or a conversation."
The devastated hearts of a majority of the country beat in the bodies of protesters who took to Fifth Avenue and elsewhere after the election, but at the moment that movement, if it can be called that, faces a similar question: the extent to which you can acknowledge the recent past without normalizing it, and the extent to which one needs to face the present in order to be effective.
That quandary has played out it in the way Obama is maintaining a dialogue with the guy who’ll succeed him so that he doesn’t, like, kill us all by pressing the wrong button under his desk. How does one balance symbolic efforts and action? How does one make a bunch of money and still try to do good with it?
In a poem that runs throughout To Pimp a Butterfly, his acclaimed third studio album, Lamar admits to sometimes "misusing his influence," which seems unlikely given how conscientious he is.
On the bus, he said that was more about "using it the best way possible.”
"I think I've done that, a pretty good job of that," he said. "Just by the work my neighborhood has seen, giving people more opportunities, building certain areas around the city where we can offer jobs, shed a more positive light on the communities there. These cameras are coming in and they want to document these guys with talent, rather than looking at them as monsters, actually sharing their talent.” Last year, the California Senate formally recognized Lamar's donations to the Compton Unified School District and other local efforts.
"That's the start right there," Lamar said. "So, I'm just continuing that, more opportunities."
"I feel like you push a message of working with the community but also protest..." I started to say.
"Uh, can we..." a flack interrupted us. "Uh, that tangent, that lapse was, uh, uh..."
"Yeah, that's AmEx, huh," Lamar said, chuckling.
We moved onto the yams, which may seem unrelated except for the fact that this may in fact be, as I inarticulately referred to it, a fairly "yammy moment.”
"Yammy moment," Lamar said, mulling the phrase over. "That's just the sauce man," he said of the yams. "That's how you carry yourself. Your aura. The appeal. The swagger. Michael Jordan."
If you're unaware of the yams, they're not that simple. Lamar first referenced them in “King Kunta”–"When you got the yams,” he rapped. ("What's the yams?" a chorus followed.) “The yam is the power that be/ You can smell it when I'm walking down the street."
The song lyrics website Genius also defines the yams as "a symbol of authenticity," with its origins in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and "a key ingredient in African cuisine," a symbol of power in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Also: "Big butts on healthy ladies and balloons filled with drugs (particularly heroin)."
The narrator in Invisible Man is walking through Harlem when he smells a vendor selling "hot, baked, Car'lina yam.” The vendor offers him some butter if he's just going to eat it on the street. ("Lots of folks takes 'em home. They got their own butter at home.")
It is so good, the narrator says, "I no longer had to worry about who saw me or about what was proper. To hell with all that, and as sweet as the yam actually was it became like nectar with the thought."
"Continue on the yam level," he concludes a few pages later, "and life would be sweet—though somewhat yellowish."
Later in “King Kunta,” the swagger that comes with the yams would seem to have a dark side, the kind exhibited by, oh, the kind of person who literally lives in a house made of gold. Because, he says, "The yam brought it out of Richard Pryor”–it likely being Pryor's demons– "manipulated Bill Clinton with desires."
"No the yams were a good influence," Lamar told me. Even for Pryor? For Clinton? "They were the first with it! Especially Richard Pryor. Then my boy Bill came in, did his thing. Carried the yams around the world and influenced a lot of people around the world with the yams. Encouraged them to get the yams. You know?"
Not perfectly. But I have a friend who theorizes that in the face of great power, irony, or whatever you want to call it, is the artist's greatest tool: the ability to subvert without appearing to subvert. It is the one thing that artists have that the powerful do not, which is in fact the opposite of swagger, but may in the end be what's called for in a time of yams. "The beat just did that for me,” et al.
Late into the concert last Friday, Lamar offered people in the crowd the chance to come onstage and freestyle with him. The first guy was booed off stage within a minute.
"New York is a tough crowd, baby," Lamar told the audience, not at all faulting it. "New York City has always been a tough motherf--king crowd so you better know your s--t."
The next guy, Jerome, knew his s--t. He and Lamar went back and forth riffing with each other. Lamar suggested he play with the idea of duality, and Jerome went off on the concept of their twinning, Geminis, eyes, and then, spotting someone in the crowd with two jackets, said: "I see you, you got the twin jacket on. It's New York, you gotta stay warm."
At one point when the verse was back with Lamar he offered that even if he himself might be high as hell, he smelled more in the crowd and teased them, "You can't smoke in here."
It was just a joke, but then you had to wonder if he improvised the next line or he already had it on deck: "We won't live in fear."