Pitchfork Music Festival 2012, live review | Kendrick Lamar
Well, we've found our headliner. Kendrick Lamar took to the Blue Stage about three and a half hours before Green Stage headliner Vampire Weekend and, in true hip-hop fashion, at least ten minutes late. And the kids were hungry. Kendrick had the largest, most excited crowd of any artist I've seen this weekend. The closest thing I can compare it to would be Odd Future last year, when kids were crowd surfing and chanting "swag" almost an hour before the band's set.
On the surface, Willis Earl Beal is this year's resident enigma. But Beal is consistent, at least enough to create the illusion that you understand him. Kendrick, on the other hand…let's break it down:
On record, Kendrick is distinguished by an almost-too-relaxed flow, more like Q-Tip or one of the dudes in Souls of Mischief than any of his Black Hippy brethren. Live, quite unlike last night's Danny Brown, Kendrick abandons his cool in the name of a raspy bark. He honestly sounds like DMX onstage, weird as that may sound to someone only familiar with his records.
He raps about drinking and smoking weed, yet in his most recent interviews claims to be a teetotaler. Today, he opened by leading his crowd in a chorus of "Pussy and Patron make me feel alright," then closed (before his encore, which we'll get to in a minute), with a new track called "Swimming Pools (Drank)." In the song, Kendrick details a life of alcoholism, leading his young crowd in a refrain of "Drink! Drink! Drink!" before the hyperbolic "you get a swimming pool full of liquor, then you dive in it." His biggest hit is a Dr. Dre collab about smoking weed in Los Angeles, and yet, supposedly...
So which is it? Is Kendrick a closet pothead, an alcoholic? Is he a sellout who's done rapping about "socially conscious" topics? None of the above. One thing is certain: Whatever Kendrick is doing, it's part of a strategy that only he and his bigtime label buddies are allowed to know about. With moralistic songs like "Swimming Pools" and the older "Fuck Your Ethnicity," Kendrick is clearly trying to teach his fans something. But is it landing, or going over their heads?
I was in the pit for this one, surrounded by a lot of the same kids I saw at A$AP and Danny Brown. They were smoking the same weed, drinking booze out of the same Vitamin Waters, and getting just as hyped. And they were with Kendrick for every minute of his near-45-minute extended set. Until his DJ cut out. After "Swimming Pools," Kendrick spit one of the most amazing, autobiographical a cappellas I've ever heard, in which he was totally honest and forthright with his audience for perhaps the first time all afternoon. He mentioned his parents' journey from Chicago to California and basically outlined his entire story for us all. He didn't even stoop to pander with his stage voice. And perhaps that's why no one in the pit listened. Everyone around me turned to their neighbor to plan the rest of their night, ignoring the young star at his most vulnerable and inspiring.
But despite that unsettling hiccup, we brought him back for an encore, the excellent (and my personal favorite) "Cartoons & Cereal." The encore is an almost unheard-of occurrence at a festival, especially for a non-headliner. But Kendrick was today's headliner, no question. Lady Gaga was sidestage, for Christ's sake, and apparently too chicken to make a planned appearance. Oh well. I'm not interested in her next move. Kendrick, on the other hand, I'll be watching. I can't wait to see what he's got up his flannel sleeve.