Beloved stars hit their marks over and over on last night’s Grammys: Beyoncé pulled off a paradoxically classy chair dance, an ecstatic Pharrell led Daft Punk in a music nerdgasm with Stevie Wonder and Nile Rodgers, Lorde fully blew out her bedroom sound, and Macklemore & Ryan Lewis staged a mass wedding as corny and obvious and touching as any ceremony you’d share with family.
And then there was Kendrick Lamar. Although he’s beloved among rap fans and recognized as an indefatigable performer at festivals and opening for Kanye West, the Academy reminded us that Kendrick’s just not the type they want to celebrate, awarding him zero Grammys, not even for Best Rap Album. Macklemore—in his own words—”robbed” that one from Kendrick.
Nor did Kendrick merely hit his marks when it came time for him to perform. Instead, he offered up his own reminder of just how wily and amorphous he is compared to virtually any other artist competing, even in futility, in any kind of industry popularity contest. Rather than simply come out and rap, maybe surrounded by a set evoking his hometown of Compton or with a guest rapper who once managed to find the Academy’s favor, he teamed up with Imagine Dragons, one of rock’s most successful and least acclaimed bands, to try and reinvent a smash (“Radioactive”) that has already worn a groove in pop’s collective consciousness. (Plus perform part of his own ”m.A.A.D City.”)
Bold move! One, naturally, that got countless knees jerking online, as the folks who like chair dances with a touch of class and heroes plucked from goth-clique obscurity preemptively bitched about unseemly evocations of ’90s-style rap-rock and combo performances that are not contrived to honor aging prestige artists. But once the loud, angry, messy, and transfixing spectacle was underway, those with too little faith in Kendrick and no interest in Imagine Dragons began tweeting praise they could hardly seem to believe even as it spilled forth. Kendrick, rapping furiously, and the band, pounding away at their big drums, not only provided the night’s only surprise, they offered up the only stunt that didn’t invite your approval and laud your taste. It wrestled your attention to the ground, then gave it a good noogie.
Not that it wasn’t perfectly calculated. Kendrick found the only way to revitalize ID’s unbelievably durable sure-bet of a song, and the performance proved his chops in a way that would translate to even the stubbornest rap bigots. (And Imagine Dragons got to have fun with a song even they must be utterly bored of by now, plus get their photos taken with Kendrick Lamar.)
The band’s label immediately rereleased a “Radioactive” with Kendrick’s verse — which is as scalding as anything Eminem ever rapped, and kicks off with a string of half-thoughts that in retrospect read like a clowning of the Academy: “Bury me alive, bury me with pride/bury me with berries, that forbidden fruit in cherry wine/Thank you berry much, but tonight is my night, and I’m Barry Bonds, swinging for the fences/barbaric Kendrick … I don’t really know your business.” Here Kendrick cleverly undermines his every boast, from the silly “berry much” to referencing Barry Bonds, the living embodiment of a record holder with an asterisk. Kendrick doesn’t need an official endorsement. He just wants the opportunity to keep proving himself.