Musicians love using towering video screens to self-mythologize, to MESSAGE us, dazzle and charm us with CGI and cinematography and memes, unspin short films while they towel off the sweat. Kanye, Drake and Beyoncé, for example. Most of it works well. But while Drizzy's on the road with Future, doing 50-song sampler setlists ever so theatrically under a sea of soft glowing orbs, the other biggest rapper in humanity's midst, Kendrick Lamar, is doing something devilishly simpler, and hammeringly effective.
Saturday night on New York City's Randall's Island, at the first-ever Panorama festival, Kendrick appeared in faded head-to-toe fuchsia, a red bandana and a blue one around his neck. (Flashback to his personalized Reeboks aimed to unite the Bloods and Crips.) He and his band grooved for nearly two hours while his wall of screens—purposefully black-and-white for the duration—channel-flipped through American history. When looped clips of Oprah and the 2004 NBA brawl known as the Malice at the Palace opened the headlining set, paired with "untitled 07 | levitate," the possibility of gimmickry or LOL-baiting hovered around 10 percent. It dropped to 0 fast.
We were presented with Nancy Reagan and her husband, Ronald. And Muhammad Ali, James Brown, dashcam footage of one car T-boning another, goony George W. Bush stumbling on a curb, Yosemite Sam and some Looney Tunes compadres ("Cartoon & Cereal," right?). Women operating switchboards and little black boys mugging for an in-their-face camera, both scenes from way back in the 1900s, likely during or near the Civil Rights Movement.
More, too: bandana'd Tupac spitting at cameras, a young Pam Grier slipping out of her clothing and into toplessness, Senator Barack Hussein Obama II grooving and grinning with Ellen DeGeneres a year before he was elected President of the United States, that one set magnificently to "i." Don King. Prince Rogers Nelson. Bill O'Reilly's viral teleprompter tantrum, set to the "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" remix:
We saw our nation's past in a patchwork quilt of Vines while our nation's present surgically, tirelessly spat a novella's worth of rhymes. Between songs, the screens went blank except for a close-up of Kendrick's face in the center, his eyes only blinking and sliding from side to side. The mighty audiovisual spectacle built to a chilling condemnation of racists and murderers "spreading motherfucking evil." K.Dot preached:
"Well guess what? Right here, right motherfucking now, we gon celebrate life. We gon celebrate our life, we gon celebrate the life of the victims that passed these last three weeks—all around the world, all around theworld—with one motherfucking song. Do you agree?"
When you're Kendrick Lamar, when you're the person who made To Pimp a Butterfly and "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst" and the "Alright" video and rapped "Oh America, you bad bitch / I picked cotton and made you rich / Now my dick ain't free," you don't need to bring bells and whistles to your stage. You bring yourself, you underline your place in this fraught, freedom-promising country, you build a community among your fans for a short, unforgettable while, and you fly home.
Kendrick Lamar's Panorama festival setlist:
"untitled 07 | levitate"
"m.A.A.d city" (second half)
"Swimming Pools (Drank)"
"THat Part" (Schoolboy Q's verses only)
"Untitled 02 | 06.23.2014."
"Complexion (A Zulu Love)"
"Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe (Remix)"
"m.A.A.d city" (first half)
"King Kunta "
Watch an old school Bonnaroo interview with Kendrick Lamar: