Kendrick Lamar’s performance at the Grammys has been widely described as “fiery”—a nice way to say there were pyrotechnics both of the actual and emotional sort. But there was more than fire, too. The set was obviously political; it was obviously powerful. What exactly did it say?
Lamar arrived bound to other mock-inmates, slouchily walking with a hint of rhythm: every few beats, a twitch. This was clearly an image for the age of mass black incarceration. From the jail cells, jazz players noodled softly, queasily. Lamar put his chained hands over the mic and said “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015,” the first words of “Blacker the Berry.” The rhythm section suddenly stabbed in—bam, bam—and Lamar flinched before launching into another line.
When it was released last winter, “Blacker the Berry” sparked controversy because Lamar’s narrator berated himself for mourning Trayvon Martin while also participating in violence against black people. Some critics saw the narrative as an example of respectability politics, the ideology that lectures black people and blames their behavior for intractable, historically rooted problems. Others saw it as an artful dissection of how an oppressive society can divide a persons’s loyalties and create self-loathing. At the Grammys, Lamar didn’t let the song’s full logic develop. He only performed the first verse, the one where the narrator is in full righteous-fury mode, drawing power from his heritage to confront white America: “You hate me don’t you? You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture. You’re fuckin’ evil, I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey.”
The music picked up, its stutter morphing into a groove. The chains came off the prisoners, who started hunching, jumping, dancing. Lights dimmed. Day-glo patterns lit up what had been prison uniforms. All assembled rocked out. Then the music changed: bongos, sax, lively but smooth. Lamar headed stage right, staggering, as if in a daze. He had just rapped “I’m African American, I’m African / I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village”; it now appeared he had been transported to that village, perhaps in a dream.
As a massive bonfire blazed and people drummed and danced, Lamar performed the beginning of “Alright,” a rallying song for the Black Lives Matter movement. A lot of attention has gone to the chorus’s affirmations, but those affirmations matter because of the verses, which talk about the special allure money and sex have when exploitation and violence are facts of life. The image of a roaring African celebration is an image of joy outside of the tangle of American problems and slippery solutions Lamar’s lyrics describe. But all images of fire have duality—destruction and creation, war and life. Here, viewers may have thought of riots or bombings in America’s past. Notably, Lamar skipped the line, “We hate po-po,” though that may not be enough to dissuade some folks on Fox News from misconstruing the whole thing as “anti-police.”
For act three, the on-stage crowd fell away and Lamar performed a new song. “It’s been a week already / feeling weak already,” he began, and a few bars later he mentioned February 26, 2012, when Trayvon Martin was killed. On that day, Lamar said, “I lost my life too … [it] set us back another 400 years.” His narrator sank into anger, shame, and indignation at the larger system and at the particular situation of an unarmed black boy losing his life. “Why didn’t he defend himself? Why couldn’t he throw a punch?” he asked.
The music accelerated, becoming noisier, and Lamar started gesturing and rapping more furiously. The lyrical scene pivoted: All of the aforementioned turmoil is why “I’m by your house, you threw your briefcase on your couch.” He seems to be talking about a break-in. What follows might be a power/revenge fantasy, or a confession, or a description of getting your own in a violent world:
I plan on creeping through your damn door and blowing out
Every piece of your brain
'Til your spine drip to your arm
Cut off the engine then sped off in a Wraith
Lamar pivoted again—“I’m on the path with my bible”—before asking himself a series of questions about how to use his fame. His words were coming fast; you’ll have to read them online to understand. He talked about anxiety, struggles with sobriety, and a tentative relationship with religion. He talked about drinking by himself in the park, and then returned to the image of blowing someone’s brains out and speeding off in a car. The music reached a chaotic crescendo as the camera flipped back and forth between different angles on Lamar’s face.
Before the song cut out and an image of Africa with the word “Compton” on it appeared, Lamar ended with this:
I said Hiiipower, one time you see it
Hiiipower, two times, you see it
Hiiipower, two times you see it
Conversation for the entire nation this is bigger than us
“Hiiipower” is the name of a 2011 song by Lamar, but he has explained the term is a slogan for a larger movement: “The three i’s represent heart, honor and respect. That’s how we carry ourselves in the streets, and just in the world, period. Hiiipower, it basically is the simplest form of representing just being above all the madness, all the bullshit.”
This is a political message, but before that it’s a therapeutic message, one about psychology and behavior. It is, as is often the case with Lamar, about the inner struggle forced by outer struggles. The Grammys performance began with Lamar in bondage, escaping into righteous celebration, and then returning to the messy reality that troubles his psyche. It’s all in his head, but it’s also very clearly not. Lamar doesn’t say that through “heart, honor, and respect” alone injustice will be solved. He’s calling for a “conversation for the entire nation,” illuminated by a fire that has been roaring for longer than America has existed.