After Hamilton finished its show-stopping performance at the Grammys on Sunday night, some viewers expressed their sincere condolences to whoever had to follow them. Minutes later, perhaps the night’s only performer who could follow Hamilton took the stage: Kendrick Lamar, who’d brought a theatrical stage setup to perform a whole different kind of American musical.
It’s worth rewinding a couple of years to consider the full context here. Back in 2014, the Grammys perpertrated one of the most unforgivable #GrammyMoments in memory when they gave Best Rap Album to Macklemore instead of Lamar’s instant classic Good Kid, M.A.A.D City—an awards decision so egregious that even Macklemore apologized for it. The Grammys—who that year had also forced Lamar into the indignity of performing with Imagine Dragons—came up with a better apology this year, giving Lamar several uninterrupted minutes to himself. Lamar did not throw away his shot.
While Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance brought a somewhat softened version of #BlackLivesMatter to TV’s biggest audience, Lamar brought mass incarceration, Ferguson, and Trayvon Martin to the Grammys all in one performance, making his political and artistic intentions as plain and as blazing as the bonfire on stage. Emerging onto the stage in shackles for “The Blacker the Berry,” he dared America, “You hate me, don’t you?” Referencing his “African … heritage of a small village.” Next he brought that village out to the Grammy stage as his own special guest, for “Alright,” his “new black national anthem” that’s sung at Black Lives Matter protests. The line in which he raps, “Nigga, and we hate po-po/ Wanna kill us dead in the street fo’ sho’ ” was strangely omitted—perhaps a necessary compromise to primetime TV’s easily offended, largely white audience, who threw a hissy fit over Beyoncé—but the message was otherwise unvarnished. Because Lamar had an ace up his sleeve: a never-before-heard, mercilessly bleak new song, on which he references the day that Trayvon Martin was killed. “On February 26th, I lost my life, too,” he raps. “Sent us back 400 years./ This is modern day slavery.”
The performance is a lot to take in, not least because of Lamar’s virtuosic delivery, which was matched by the pace of the cuts and the flash of the strobe lights. (Some credit goes to whoever directed the broadcast for managing to keep up.) Watch it, and then watch it again, because long after the rest of tonight’s performances fade from memory, we’re still going to be talking about this one.