Do you remember when this happened?
I know, I know. There was this other video recently that received A LOT of analysis and attention and views and genius talk and backlash to the genius talk and…we’re going to skip all of that right now. As a matter of fact we’re bout to follow the immortal words and infinitely sampled wisdom of The Jimmy Castor Bunch
What we’re gonna do right here is go back,
way back, back into time
—“Troglodyte” The Jimmy Castor Bunch
Back all the way to January 28, 2018, when The Recording Academy opened their esteemed (at least in their eyes) Grammy’s Awards show with a one Kendrick Lamar Duckworth. What’s that Buckshot?
Let’s take a sec to think back
—“Crooklyn” Buckshot in The Crooklyn Dodgers
Yeah, let’s do that because great art deserves to be considered, contemplated and appreciated again and again. And I don’t think this one got its just due. And, more importantly, K-Dot told us to (around 2:50):
I like to put a lot of different things and word plays and messages in my music because I want it to live further than 2 weeks…I want it to live for the next 20 years. So you have to listen to it over and over and over again to fully understand the direction and the message that I put in there and the execution of it. I want you to do that and challenge the way you think and the way you take in music.
So if you haven’t already done so, you should scroll back up and click on a master at his craft. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Cool? Let’s do this.
Did you catch that?! In the middle of all of that Organized Konfusion? Around one minute and forty-six seconds into Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance the music cuts off abruptly and the stage goes dark except for a solitary spotlight on the artist. He turns around to face the video screens behind him and stretches out his arms as a sentence is forming, “THIS….IS…A …SATIRE…BY” and now spinning back toward his audience his arms outstretch again as the sentence is completed, “KENDRICK LAMAR.” Before we go any further, we should remember that Merriam-Webster defines the word “satire” as…j/k, this isn’t a personal essay for college admission. Let’s forget the question “What is a satire?” and consider: “What is he satirizing?” The obvious answer (floating in the damn background as the performance begins as well as being the first word we hear) is America. But like a lot of good rappers, Kendrick Lamar loves double entendres. So, definitely a satire of America, but what if he also has another layer to the satire? What if Kendrick Lamar is asserting to over 19.8 million people, “Fuck the Grammy’s!”?
Don’t know if you’ve heard, but hip-hop hasn’t had the best relationship with the Grammy’s. And Kendrick hasn’t had the best of luck in this relationship. With those things in mind, let’s break down his satire:
We open with the flag of the United States waving on the screens behind the performers, a chorus singing from Kendrick’s “XXX.”: “America. God Bless you if you if it’s good to ya/America, please take my hand. Can you help me unders…” Replace “America” with “Grammy’s”, and we are on our way. Kendrick begins to rap the verse (posted below) about a friend whose son has been killed. The friend is asking Kendrick to calm him down and provide a Christian answer to his problems, and Kendrick instead gives him an Old Testament eye for an eye mentality while he and the cast continue to march with the American flag continuing to wave in the background. Consider this sentiment in context of the Grammy’s. Sure, K-Dot smiled and was gracious when Macklemore won, but what if he plotted? What if he wanted some get back on the institution that would commit such an artistic injustice? What if that’s what this “satire” is? Also, to continue with the double entendre, check out the line “Ain’t no Black Power when your baby killed by a coward” and substitute his baby, this life he spent nurturing and growing into creation being good kid, m.A.A.d. city inexplicably getting killed by choosing Macklemore’s The Heist (that title couldn’t be more perfect) over it for best rap album.
Yesterday I got a call like from my dog like 101
Said they killed his only son because of insufficient funds/
He was sobbin’, he was mobbin’, way belligerent and drunk/
Talkin’ out his head, philosophin’ on what the Lord had done
He said: “K-Dot, can you pray for me?/
It been a fucked up day for me
I know that you anointed, show me how to overcome.”/
He was lookin’ for some closure
Hopin’ I could bring him closer
to the spiritual, my spirit do know better, but I told him
“I can’t sugarcoat the answer for you, this is how I feel:
If somebody kill my son, that mean somebody gettin’ killed.”/
Tell me what you do for love, loyalty, and passion of
All the memories collected, moments you could never touch/
I’ll wait in front of homey’s spot and watch him hit his block/
I’ll catch homey leavin’ service if that’s all I got/
I’ll chip at homey, then throw the blower in his lap/
Walk myself to the court like, “Man, I did that!”/
Ain’t no Black Power when your baby killed by a coward
I can’t even keep the peace, don’t you play with one of ours/
It be murder in the street, it be bodies in the hour
Ghetto bird be on the street, paramedics on the dial/
Let somebody touch my momma
Touch my sister, touch my woman/
Touch my daddy, touch my niece
Touch my nephew, man, I promise/
You chipped at homey, then throw the blower in his lap/
Matter fact, I’m ’bout to speak at this convention/
Call you back—
Notice where he ends the verse. Every aspect of this performance is meticulously planned. As he told Rick Rubin in an interview (around 16:08), “I have to think about it and live it, know how my mannerisms are how I’m moving. All that [as he begins to emphasize hammering at his thigh] has to be dead on for me. From the hits and the licks to how we rearrange the ideas just to give the fans a new experience. It’s a process. The same way that I sit with mixes and mastering is the same way I sit inside that rehearsal room to make sure that everything is hittin’…” We’ve already seen a couple of these rearranged ideas, and this verse ends with another one. The convention in the album is Kendrick speaking to kids about gun control and gun violence, but here it’s the Grammy’s and its audience. This is the point when Kendrick informs us that he is presenting us with a satire with arms outstretched…and then he drops to one knee.
Enter U2—or more properly Bono & The Edge (sorry Adam Clayton & Larry Mullen Jr.)—who allow themselves to be props in Kendrick’s satire. This has been done in reverse before (thinking of you Nelly), but Kendrick flips the script having one of the greatest rock bands of all time (and the rock band with the most Grammy’s in history btw) give a 28 second cameo. It’s a nice statement on how “mainstream” music has changed. They gently pass down the middle of the stage, the Edge playing a few licks while Bono sings:
It’s not a place
This country is to me a sound
Of drum and bass/
You close your eyes to look around/
It’s not a place
This country is to me a thought/
that offers grace/
for every welcome that is sought/
The last three lines here work really well in referring to the Grammy’s if you view it as the most famous and successful rock band of the last forty years (crazy!) declaring that if you make good music, you’ll be recognized by the institution. Aaaaaaaaaaaaand as that last word is sung and Bono and the Edge leave the stage, we have Kendrick’s reply to that sentiment:
Burn your life
I live a better life, I’m rollin’ several dice, [repeat couplet 3x]
This is my heritage, all I’m inheritin’
Money and power, the maker of marriages/
Tell me somethin’
You can’t tell me nothin’
I’d rather die than to listen to you/
My DNA not for imitation
Your DNA an abomination/
This how it is when you in the Matrix
Dodgin’ bullets, reapin’ what you sow/
And stackin’ up the footage, livin’ on the go/
And sleepin’ in a villa
Sippin’ from a Grammy and walkin’ in the buildin’
Diamond in the ceilin’, marble on the floors
Beach inside the window, peekin’ out the window/
Baby in the pool, godfather goals/
Only Lord knows I’ve been goin’ h.a.m./
Dodgin’ paparazzi, freakin’ through the cameras/
Eat at Four Daughters, Brock wearin’ sandals
Yoga on a Monday, stretchin’ to Nirvana/
Watchin’ all the snakes, curvin’ all the fakes/
Phone never on, I don’t conversate/
I don’t compromise, I just penetrate/
Sex, money, murder—these are the breaks/
These are the times, level number 9
Look up in the sky, 10 is on the way/
Sentence on the way, killings on the way
Won’t you tell them, I got millions on the way/
In this satire, Kendrick’s career (“life”) is better than U2’s, and according to Kendrick “You can’t tell me nothin’.” Even without Album of the Year, Kendrick asserts he’s won some Grammy awards (or GRAMMY awards according to their website…pretentious much?) and is having a successful career without compromise. Then, there’s a nice warning that if the Grammy’s continue things in the same way, they’ll only bring about an apocalypse (“level number 9 / look up in the sky, 10 is on the way”) which is consistently misunderstood throughout history. In the Biblical sense (and Kendrick’s music is littered with Biblical references), the apocalypse is meant not to the be the end of the world but the end of the world as we know it to be replaced by a new and better existence. Here, we could say he is prophesizing that institutions like the Grammy’s will crumble as we know it to set up new norms in which all genres are given equal influence.
Did you know prophets were considered dangerous and crazy? The stage goes dark, and just off stage a spotlight shines on Dave Chapelle to surprised & loud cheers: “Hi. I’m Dave Chapelle. And I just wanted to remind the audience that the only thing more frightening than watching a Black Man be honest in America is being an honest Black Man in America. Sorry for the interruption. Please continue.” And you can hear the laughter in the audience (it’s a satire! Chapelle said something…Chapelle is funny!…Chapelle said something funny!) though only a little because I think some people got it. Go back and watch that meta moment again. Chapelle is talking about himself, sure, but he clearly understands what Kendrick Lamar is doing as well. In Chapelle’s interview of Kendrick for Interview, he asked K-Dot what he hoped “to accomplish with your platform,” and Kendrick answered, “The more and more I get out and talk to different people, I realize they [fans] appreciate that—me being unapologetic in whatever views and approach I have.”
Kendrick continuing his views in this Grammy performance delivers three quick excerpts from three different songs: “Big Shot” from Black Panther, “New Freezer” a song by Rich the Kid that Kendrick has a guest verse in, and “King’s Dead” also from Black Panther. Kendrick jumps to each song with the exclamation, “Yeah!” And as Chapelle just told us, Kendrick’s being unabashedly honest. Here’s what he raps:
Sir Duckworth or Kung-Fu Kenny
Got juice, got work, got weight, got plenty/
Got them, got her, got more, got Benji, yeah/
Top off, gettin’ topped-off in the city/
Big Top Dawg and I dance on ’em like Diddy/
Pop off and I pop back like Fiddy, YEAH!/
…I gotta dance
I Milly Rock when I get that advance
How can I shop with like 64 Ms?
Talkin’ to Top about business again/
He want a lot with new Bentleys again/
I want some top from like two sets of twins/
Twenty twin twins, yeah, YEAH!/
Red light, green light, red light, green light
Red light, green light, they like we like
Fast cars, fast money, fast life, fast broads/
Egotistic, goin’ ballistic, why God?/
Born warrior, lookin’ for euphoria/
But I don’t see it, I don’t feel it, I’m paraplegic
Tapped in when I’m maxed in Comp-Town with the MAC 10s
And the pumps in the background absent,/
Never OG’s handout,/
Lackin’ everything else but doubt/
Magnum holdin’ Magnums with a Magnum/
holdin’ ad-lib and I sing out loud
Never had friends, never had ends, never had hope
They was like, “Nope,” I was like, “Boo yaow, boo yaow”
It’s like Biggie’s “Money, hoes, and clothes; all a nigga knows” flipped with some incredible verbal gymnastics on live tv. It’s classic, unapologetic hip-hop, and it’s a bit of a different vibe from “Thrift Shop” (over a billion views? really?!). But! It’s also a comment on the perception of hip-hop. If you listen to any Kendrick album (and a lot of hip-hop in general), you know it’s so much more than materialism or misogyny or violence. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these themes are sandwiched between the other two sections of the performance that really do not touch on those themes. It’s an honest statement (what was Chapelle saying?) while also pointing to a larger reality that gets ignored.
I’m going to pass on interpreting the interpretive dance by the woman in all white with some dope white Nike Cortez’s, but I do like the war drum at the beginning of this segment. As she’s beating on it for the “Big Shot” and “New Freezer” lyrics, there is absolutely no other music. It’s a nice visual/sonic metaphor for the attack Kendrick’s putting on the Grammy’s and hip hop’s place in the awards, and it also serves as this nice intro to the music kicking in for the “King’s Dead” lyrics. Chapelle pops back up after “Boo yaow” to summarize what we just witnessed, “Is this on cable? this CBS? cuz it looks like he’s singin’ & dancin’, but this brotha’s takin’ enormous chances [quick tangent: nice couplet!!!]! RUMBLE, YOUNG MAN, RUMBLE!!!” Now Chapelle is directly telling us a double entendre is taking place right before our eyes. Kendrick (assuming Chapelle’s sections are under Lamar’s direction) invokes the tradition of minstrel & Black entertainment being for the enjoyment of Whites, and of course the tradition of the Grammy’s is that winners are mainstream (read: accepted by the majority) and flips the script (again). They are clearly letting us know that what we’re witnessing isn’t just simple singing and dancing and we’re not only meant to be entertained.
That command to “rumble” brings on the most memorable set piece, a group of Black men dressed in all red (even masking their faces that we saw earlier) with Kendrick in the middle of the sea of red (go ahead & make a parting of the Red Sea saving the chosen people inferences since Damn. and all of Kendrick’s music is littered with Biblical references), and Kendrick fucking rumbles:
Never had friends, never had ends, never had hope
They was like, “Nope,” I was like, “Boo yaow, boo yaow”
We off the day, know we off the, be off the, eat off your plate
Throw me off, I be, “Off ya head”/
[note: the last couplet are probably a bit inaccurate]
Make more C4, I’m way off the edge
Burn integrity, burn your pedigree,/
Burn your feelin’s, burn your culture/
Burn your moral, burn your family, burn your tribe/
burn your land, burn your children, burn your wives/
Who am I?/
Not your father, not your brother/
Not your reason, not your future
Not your comfort, not your reverence, not your glory/
Not your heaven, not your angel, not your spirit/
Not your message, not your freedom/
Not your people, not your neighbor/
Not your baby, not your equal
Not the title y’all want me under/
All hail King Killmonger!
Beginning with “Burn integrity” (well, Dave, this IS still CBS as Kendrick replaces each “Fuck” heard in the original version with “Burn”), we hear a gunshot and see a red clothed figure dropping in supposed death until Kung Fu Kenny stands alone finishing with “NOT THE TITLE YOU WANT ME UNDER; ALL HAIL KING KILLMONGER!” There’s this brief five seconds of revelry and hellfire (hey! the red guys resurrected!), the music returns until they all fall again (damn! they died again!) and Kendrick is left standing alone with the flames slowly dwindling down and the crowd cheering while breaking into a standing ovation. The Statue of Liberty projects on the screen behind him which is a nice bookend as the performance began with the flag, and amidst the adulation Kendrick refuses to look at any of them.
Here’s what’s hella interesting and gets to the heart of the satire. Kendrick could have finished off with the lyrics to the song “Black Panther” and had his group of dancers exulting him in some way (idk, insert praise dance gif of your choice). That song has K-Dot assuming the voice of T’Challa (and occasionally interspersing himself with T’Challa) to proclaim rule over all in a generally beneficent manner. Not what we have here at all! Instead, Kendrick is rapping as Erik Killmonger (and just like in the song “Black Panther” there is definitely some Kendrick in these assertions) choosing the character that wants to usurp the throne of Wakanda to tear it down (and the world’s structure along with it) to remake the world order as he sees fit (you know, like an apocalypse).
The Killmonger verse is the apex of the character’s power in Black Panther. Killmonger in the movie has grown up separated from the paradise (that he rightfully belongs to) of Wakanda and instead has lived and seen the injustices to Black people throughout the world first growing up a United States citizen in Oakland and then as a U.S. black ops soldier. In Time’s piece on the film, it says of Killmonger: “Killmonger’s perspective is rendered in full; his rage over how he and other black people across the world have been disenfranchised and disempowered is justifiable.” We can at the very least sympathize (if not empathize) with Killmonger because the movie depicts a round character much in the same way that Kendrick in six minutes and some change presents different aspects of this thing called hip-hop and what it can do and say. So, no doubt, Kendrick Lamar’s entire performance and imagery is a statement on the United States, but go back over that list of burn’s and not your’s. Then consider Killmonger’s rage at Wakanda and its leaders over seemingly ignoring the disenfranchised, and consider the history of the Grammy’s.
This isn’t meant to take away from the strong critique of the United States as much as to illustrate that Kendrick Lamar is smart enough to assert more than one critique. He consistently throughout his career communicates more than one thing; and honestly in the time of Trump as well as the imagery the performance displays, the America part is pretty easy to see. However, I actually think the more brilliant aspect of the performance is the trolling of the Grammy’s. It’s a grand, bold statement hiding in plain sight: In a room full of people who are “supposed” to understand, accept and appreciate all forms of music, why is hip-hop still a sideshow when awards are handed out?
“This is a Satire by Kendrick Lamar” indeed.