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In the lobby of The Kennedy Center before the Kendrick Lamar concert with The National Symphony Orchestra.

In the lobby of The Kennedy Center before the Kendrick Lamar concert with The National Symphony Orchestra.

For your average person, driving over 200 miles –one way– and paying over $200 for one ticket to a hip hop concert seems like doing THE MOST. But, walking into the lobby of The Kennedy Center on Tuesday night, October 20th, I couldn’t have been more sure that I’d made the right last-minute decision to attend Kendrick Lamar’s performance at the esteemed concert venue. I can’t lie, though. When I’d heard with the rest of the world the announcement that he would be doing a one-night-only with The National Symphony Orchestra, my spirit was pretty crushed when I realized that the performance had sold out via The Kennedy Center box office within a matter of minutes. I spent the next two weeks checking StubHub and Vivid Seats on a daily basis hoping that a ticket under $100 would become available. It never did. Then, here it was Sunday night before the show and Seat 1 of Box 11, with a face value of $99, was staring me down. In that moment, three instances from my concert-going history came to mind: the two concerts I never quite got over missing (The Fugees/The Roots/Goodie Mob tour in 1995 and Dave Chappelle’s Block Party in 2004), and having actually seen Wyclef with the New York Philharmonic at The Lincoln Center in 2005. THIS was one of those moments where I knew I’d look back and regret not attending. So, rationalizing that I’ve seen at least a couple hundred of free concerts of legendary ilk over the years at Central Park Summerstage, I splurged and bought myself the ticket, filled up my gas tank and hit the I-95 South, bumping the ultimat K-Dot playlist on Tidal the whole way to DC.

I didn’t realize until I’d arrived at The Kennedy Center and received a program that this particular concert with Kendrick Lamar was a part of their 2015 – 2016 Pops Season along with celebrated comedian Steve Martin and R&B crooners Boyz II Men. So, not only would it be my first time seeing Kendrick but also my first time seeing The National Symphony Orchestra and attending their classical pops series. Realizing this increased the value of the experience for me, and made me wonder if there had been other hip hop collaborations with the NSO. I had forgotten that a year and a half prior, Nas was the first hip hop artist invited to perform with the orchestra during Pops Season as a part of The Hip Hop Theater Festival’s One Mic: Hip-Hop Culture Worldwide. Celebrating the 20th anniversary of his debut album Illmatic, Nas donned a tuxedo, bow tie and dark shades while performing hits from his entire career. Of the collaborations with both Nas and Kendrick Lamar, NSO Pops conductor, Steven Reineke reflected on the unlikely pairings:

“A few years ago I realized there’s one genre of music that’s very important in American culture that we have never worked with … and that is hip-hop. We were able to do that with Nas and now we’re continuing that with Kendrick Lamar … I feel like we have a stewardship to the great American songbook and to me that’s always being written. It’s not just Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. It’s guys of today who are writing and they have something important to say. A guy like Kendrick Lamar, the artistry is really high. This is just done at such an incredibly talented level. The message that Kendrick has, the things he talks about, the modern-day current issues are very valuable.”

Kendrick Lamar program

That Reineke would have the foresight to reference the artistry of Nas or Kendrick Lamar when talking about the great American songbook speaks volumes about the creative vision he has for the NSO. And, honestly, I found it impressive and refreshing enough to consider becoming a member of The Kennedy Center… well, if I lived in Washington, D.C.!  Nevertheless, being one of the 2,500 audience members of the sold out performance was enough to keep me on a musical high for YEARS to come. (This, and the fact that I saw D’Angelo & The Vanguard on the Black Messiah tour twice earlier this year!)

There are already tons of rave reviews of the epic performance that you should check out, from Rolling Stone to the Washington Post to Pitchfork (which happened to include a candid photo of yours truly standing in the lobby!), so I won’t give a play-by-play of the night. But I did want to highlight the moments that I found completely extraordinary. Let’s start with the overture! I don’t know any way to put it other than: the To Pimp A Butterfly Overture that the NSO opened with was literally music to my ears. Corny, I know! But it was absolutely delightful to hear. The instrumental introduction by the orchestra comprised the most recognizable compositions of the album before Kendrick even graced the stage. I kept thinking, “Wow, this is ALREADY soooo amazing…. This overture is OVAH! *snap*” Then there was the electric pulse of Kendrick’s band, The Wesley Theory, which accompanied the ninety-six member orchestra. The sheer gravity of sound from the symphony strings and blaring horns was tremendous as the sold-out audience joined in with Kendrick’s lyrical delivery. Word for word, verse for verse, song after song, it seemed as if one unison voice emerged from Kendrick and his fans during hits like “m.A.A.d city”, “Backseat Freestyle” and “Alright”. It was incredibly interesting and complex seeing such a mainstream and diverse crowd of Kennedy Center members and supporters recite lines referencing Pirus and Crips, police brutality, political corruption and personal hypocrisy, as well as having free will and liberty to sing the word “nigga” without a Black person sitting in the next row giving them the side-eye. Complicated, yet completely authentic to the moment and to hip hop, in general. No matter which words Kendrick Lamar used to get his point across, the integrity of the message remained in tact, and the entire concert hall felt it. Also telling were the moments he would shout out couples in the audience in admiration and respect: #BlackLoveMatters, indeed.

Of the tons of other things there are to be said about the concert performance, what sticks with me is Kendrick’s spirit, grace and charm being a young man of 28 years from Compton, CA standing front and center on the world’s stage. With over one hundred musicians playing his music, you could feel the glow resonating from his smile and the energy that would take over his movement. I felt very proud watching as he thanked the audience for their ongoing support since his first mixtape Section.80 and intercepted their applause during a moment of silence, saying that it was about THEM, not him. I thought of the bonus track “Black Boy Fly” from good kid, m.A.A.d city where he talks about the successes of NBA player Arron Afflalo and The Game by merit of sports and rap music, and the insecurity he felt as a youngster about the likelihood of making it out of Compton:

“My mama didn’t raise me up to be jealous-hearted

Like most of the winners call it

Regardless of where you stay, hold your head and continue marching

That’s what she said but in my head I wanted to be like Jordan

Award touring the country with money from mic recording

The only way out the ghetto, you know the stereotype

Shooting hoops or live on the stereo like top 40

And shortly, I got discouraged

Like every time I walked to the corner had them guns bursting

Nigga, I was rehearsing in repetition the phrase

That only one in a million will ever see better days

Especially when the crime waves was bigger than tsunamis

Break your boogie boards to pieces you just a typical homy

All these niggas facetious and they all standing beside me

They all will buy me a chopper if any one of you try me

What am I to do when every neighborhood is an obstacle

When 2 niggas making it out had never sounded logical

3 niggas making it out, that’s mission impossible

So I never believed the type of performance that I could do

I wasn’t jealous cause of the talents they got

I was terrified they’d be the last black boys to fly…

Out of Compton

Thank God…”

Kendrick Lamar with the NSO. (Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)

Kendrick Lamar with the NSO. (Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post)

He didn’t include “Black Boy Fly” on the set list that night at the Kennedy Center, but believe me when I say the very essence of the song sums up what I imagine Kendrick Lamar felt throughout the entire performance — where he’s from and where he’s going. And thank God! Black boy, fly.