Kendrick Lamar has quickly become one of the most revered figures in hip-hop, with his sophomore album To Pimp a Butterfly being universally praised by critics and named 2015 Album of the Year by various publications including Rolling Stone and Pitchfork.
In an internet interview called #YoutTubeAsksObama in January, President Obama said Kendrick’s album “was outstanding. Best album, I think, of last year.”
Lamar was nominated for 11 awards at the 2016 Grammys, more than any other artist this year. Ultimately, he took home five Grammys including Best Rap Album.
But it’s not the awards that have people Googling “Kendrick Lamar Grammys.”
On Grammys night, Lamar gave what many are calling one of the most powerful, important and daring performances in the award show’s history. Lamar, emerging in chains, performed three songs, incorporating a jail set, African dancers, and a raging bonfire into his intense, theatrical act. Shots of the audience showed people looking fixated, bewildered and perhaps even stunned.
But the audience seemed to realize that Lamar’s performance transcended the awards show. It was more important than a night of congratulatory fun, and, recognizing this, the crowd rose to their feet and gave Lamar a standing ovation at the end of his set.
Predictably, the powerful and uncompromising act in which Lamar raps “You hate me don’t you? You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture,” garnered some backlash.
Some Twitter users claimed “reverse racism” and recalled Lamar’s 2015 BET Awards set, which he performed on top of a cop car, to criticize the rapper for his supposedly “anti-police” stance. Regarding Lamar’s BET performance last year, journalist Geraldo Rivera famously commented, “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years,” on Fox News’ “The Five”.
However, just days after the internet erupted over Beyoncé’s politically charged “Formation” video and Super Bowl performance, conservative pundits seemed to have a lot less vitriol left for Lamar. The reaction to his set was, refreshingly, overwhelmingly positive. Even infamously cranky television host Piers Morgan offered some (cringe-worthy) praise tweeting, “This is GREAT outta Compton.”
The Huffington Post wrote that Lamar’s act was “the only one worth watching” from this year’s Grammys and Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield called him “the unquestioned king of the night”.
Celebrities took to social media to express their awe, with Justin Timberlake tweeting “I had to charge my phone so I am late but @kendricklamar !!!!!!!!!!!! WOW.” Orange is the New Black star Uzo Aduba tweeted “He’s been revolutionizing the game since Day 1. The power and the skill that is @kendricklamar #Grammys.” And Ellen DeGeneres tweeted at Lamar saying simply “you are brilliant.”
While he didn’t win the coveted Album of the Year award, Lamar managed to completely overshadow everything else that happened that evening.
As Beyoncé did at the Super Bowl, Lamar used his platform as a respected artist to raise the public consciousness. Social issues can no longer be stuffed into the backs of people’s minds; they’re penetrating the mainstream.
The discomfort some people may feel from seeing Lamar as part of a chain gang on the Grammys stage, or Beyoncé and her dancers in Black Panther-esque costumes at the Super Bowl is insignificant. Black Lives Matter, police violence, systemic racism, mass incarceration and every other social issue Lamar’s performance addressed are things that need to be talked about, and things the public needs to be confronted with.
And judging by the stunned awe and appreciation that characterized the reception of Lamar’s performance, the public has started to realize this too.