Words matter, and Kendrick Lamar seems to have all of the right ones these days.
Last month, the 30-year-old Compton rapper won the Pulitzer Prize for Music. He is the first non-jazz or classical composer to do so. Lamar hasn’t ever relished in publicly gloating over his accomplishments, but he was happy to give 13,000 fans at Tampa’s MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre a little reminder on Tuesday. “Pulitzer Kenny,” the marquee read after Lamar emerged to open the set with a searing version of “DNA.”
The track — like much a lot of Lamar’s 2017, Pulitzer-winning album DAMN. — is a multi-view exploration of growing up black in America. It addresses the rapper’s family history of selling drugs, the commodification of African-American culture and even cross-references 90s rock heros Nirvana. The song also samples a Fox News clip where mustachioed fuck-boy Geraldo Rivera criticizes lyrics from Lamar’s ridiculously jazzy 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly.
“This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years,” Rivera says on the clip (the TV personality has also perplexingly said that, "Aside from Drake, in my opinion, [Lamar is] probably the best hip-hop artist out there today”). Lamar’s critics don’t exclusively come from the land of conservative pundit-dom, either. Just this week, fellow Pulitzer-winner, jazz trumpeter and noted hip-hop curmudgeon Wynton Marsalis reiterated a sentiment he’s been expressing since before Lamar was born.
“I started saying in 1985 I don’t think we should have a music talking about n— and bitches and hoes. It had no impact. I’ve said it. I’ve repeated it. I still repeat it,” he told the Washington Post. “To me that’s more damaging than a statue of Robert E. Lee.”
Race is a gigantic element of Lamar’s music, and the debate around it was ignited once again on Sunday after the rapper’s set at Alabama’s Hangout Festival where he invited a white fan onstage to perform a song from his breakout 2012 LP, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. She dodged the first N-word, but then slipped up on the second one. A debate about whether or not white Kendrick Lamar fans can say “n—” unfolded. Lamar didn’t address the snafu in Tampa (his first show since the incident), but he doesn’t have to because his catalog does the talking for him.
Yes, he has songs like the incredibly funky “King Kunta,” the spastic-yet-meditative “untitled 07 | 2014- 2016” and party-ready “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe.” Every one of those cuts is a celebration of euphoria, creative energy and an unwillingness to compromise that is the mark of the most meaningful pieces of art. But Lamar has tunes like “XXX.” in his bag, too. That cut — delivered with the shed lit up in red and blue lights — address poverty, the illusion of peaceful protest, and the way America often celebrates largely unattainable modes of black, male excellence (hip-hop and sports, for example, which made the “Championship” theme of the tour a bit ironic). “Alright,” a highlight from Good Kid, has become an anthem or beacon of hope for all groups facing seemingly insurmountable odds — and Lamar’s fans, regardless of color, seem to know the words to all of it.
To watch an audience with a median age that fell between the early and late 20s completely in step with him throughout the night was mind-blowing. These are offspring of the boomer generation, kids whose parents get pissed when artists “don’t play real instruments.” But none of those parents’ rock stars — as gifted as they may have been — were Pulitzer-winners who captured a less than savory side of the American experience so poignantly. It is remarkable to know that the body of work Lamar has created speaks to an existence that a large demographic of his fan base will never truly understand. Many of those with two hands in the air at MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre won’t likely ever experience what it’s like to have their hands over their head because a cop’s gun in pointed in their direction. They probably won’t ever have to deal with drivers rolling up their windows as they walk down a sidewalk. So many of Kendrick’s fans won’t have to code switch during a job interview or wonder how the hell to wear their hair at work. A slice of the population in attendance will also forget that Kendrick — like tour mates Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock and Ab-Soul — still have to be black men in America when they walk off that stage.
Still, so many bounced along as the heavy, left-hand piano riff on set highlight “HUMBLE.” rang through the air. Lamar even backed off his mic and let his most faithful recite the words acapella. The rapper gave that passion and care back to them at every turn of the set by looking into each and every fan at so many different times in the set. The level of participation was powerful; the fan-artist connection almost tangible.
Today’s internet presents a very polarized version of the American experience where compassion for one another often seems to be the last thing on anybody’s mind. There’s a little more hope than that at a Kendrick Lamar show.
Lamar’s fans may or may not belong to a generation that can help start turning the tide for so many who have to live within the complexities and constraints of being black in America. What is certain, however, is that words matter. Kendrick surely has some of the best of them, and his fans are most definitely listening to every last one.