The Week In Pop

On Record And On Stage, Kendrick Lamar Is Taking No Prisoners

The first time I saw Kendrick Lamar in concert, he seemed so small. This was five years ago, when he was opening for Drake at the Schottenstein Center on Ohio State’s campus. Kendrick was still a few months off from releasing his legend-making good kid, m.A.A.d. city, but he was already a burgeoning star thanks to a run of mixtapes climaxing with the underground sensation Section.80. Amplifying the hype was an interlude he’d recently contributed to Take Care, a display of controlled virtuosity tacked onto the end of “Marvins Room” detailing his trip to Toronto to break bread with the man who’d later become his rival.

He began by rapping that bleary-eyed anecdote, clinging to a microphone stand like a security blanket, and he did not become much more animated as the set rolled on. A$AP Rocky’s energetic performance a few minutes earlier had proved that such a cavernous venue need not swallow up a hip-hop opening act. Yet the arena dwarfed Kendrick on that night. Even back then no one questioned his status as a visionary — a guy with contortionist verbal powers spraying his mind’s most evocative imagery from bizarre angles and making it sound like pop music — but I remember thinking the uncontainable creative charisma that marked his recorded output did not translate to his stage show, even with songs as engaging as “A.D.H.D.” and “HiiiPower” in the setlist.

A lot has changed since then. The sprawling autobiography good kid, m.A.A.d. city, an album that spawned rave reviews and radio hits alike, cemented Kendrick’s place on hip-hop’s A-list. With his furious bars on Big Sean’s “Control” — easily the most talked-about verse this decade — Kendrick treated rap as a competitive sport and announced his intentions to fiercely protect his championship belt, even calling out many of his peers by name. Yet with 2015’s To Pimp A Butterfly and its 2016 companion piece untitled unmastered, he seemed to be stepping outside the Best Rapper Alive conversation and vying for a different sort of transcendence, funneling decades of black history (musical and otherwise) and years of his own neuroses into a volatile sonic cauldron. On its own terms, Butterfly succeeded wildly; it was another instant classic that spoke powerfully to its historical moment and further elevated K. Dot’s already astronomical standing as an artist. Still, the album’s aversion to the hip-hop mainstream allowed Drake to maintain his longstanding position at the peak of rap more or less uncontested.

Along the way, Kendrick and Drake’s relationship devolved into a cold war seemingly informed by deep philosophical differences about authenticity and what it means to be an elite rapper. The conflict was well underway around the time of the “Control” verse and fully entrenched by early 2015, when Kendrick remarked on record, “I can dig rappin’/ But a rapper with a ghostwriter? What the fuck happened?” A few months later, when fellow purist Meek Mill outed Drake for not writing his own lyrics on the commercially dominant If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late mixtape, Kendrick’s subliminal insult suddenly took on hyper-specific resonance. Those (seemingly accurate) allegations weren’t enough to unseat Drake from the throne, though; he easily dispatched Meek in their summer ’15 feud and went on to ever greater success even as the quality of his music declined. With old titans like Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Lil Wayne past their hit-making prime and a generation of new talents not yet in full bloom, only one figure seemed capable of taking over as rap’s center of gravity: J. Cole.

Just kidding, it was Kendrick! And with DAMN., the best and most popular album of 2017, he’s done just that. Lead single “HUMBLE.” became Kung Fu Kenny’s first #1 hit as a lead artist (following his turn on Taylor Swift’s chart-topping “Bad Blood” remix). Upon DAMN.‘s release, “DNA.” landed in the top 10 as well, and the entire tracklist cracked the Hot 100. The album itself debuted at #1 with the biggest first-week numbers of any 2017 release by far (603,000 equivalent album units and 353,000 in pure sales) and stayed on top for three straight weeks. It’s the only album this year to be certified double-platinum; four months after its release it still hasn’t come close to dropping out of the top 10. And there’s some, ahem, poetic justice to the fact that the album’s recent return to #1 for a fourth nonconsecutive week coincided with Drake disappearing from the Hot 100 singles chart for the first time in more than eight years.

DAMN. has positioned Kendrick as the dominant artist in rap and, by virtue of the album’s outsized popularity, the foremost figure in the entire pop mainstream (at least until his old buddy Taylor drops her new single tonight). In terms of hip-hop hegemony, it helps Kendrick’s cause that this year’s More Life found Drake drifting further from a strictly rap and R&B context toward a larger palette of global sounds. But mostly Kendrick has seized the throne this year because he went for broke. DAMN. is a full-scale gauntlet throw-down, a demonstration of power from one of rap’s great practitioners of finesse.

In a recent Rolling Stone cover story Kendrick called the album a hybrid of the approachable GKMC and the insular TPAB. It succeeds on that front, wrangling his knottiest creative impulses into bangers of many breeds. Hard-hitting anthems abound: the thunderously swaggering “HUMBLE.,” the visceral and electrifying “DNA.,” the ridiculously catchy “ELEMENT.” But we also get the Rihanna-assisted BBQ jam “LOYALTY.” and the swooning romance ballad “LOVE.” and the hands-in-the-air victory lap “GOD.” and “XXX.,” a compact epic about our dystopian American situation that crams as many genre reference points into four minutes as you’d expect from a song that incorporates both Bono and Mike Will Made-It. Even the more contemplative deep cuts are as accessible as many artists’ singles.

That ethos carries over into the DAMN. tour, which this week made its way back to the Schottenstein Center, the scene of that disappointing 2012 display. This time Kendrick returned as the world-conquering headliner, with a contagiously jubilant D.R.A.M. and a fiery, cocksure YG taking over the role of opening act. And this time nothing about his performance felt tiny; alone on an empty stage for most of the night, Kendrick’s presence was gargantuan. Half a decade of touring under an increasingly bright spotlight has rendered him a poised entertainer, capable of turning all that crackling internal energy outward.

Tuesday night in Columbus, he came to entertain. The show began with a funny video segment playing on the Kung Fu Kenny persona threaded throughout DAMN., starring Kendrick as a “turtle style” martial arts master, which would prove to be the first in a trilogy of interludes. A startling pyrotechnic explosion followed; when the smoke cleared, there was Kendrick, kneeling at the center of the stage as if in prayer. After a pregnant pause, the sample of disgusted Fox News anchors that leads into “DNA.” played back on the mammoth video display behind him, and in an instant we were off and running.

Even more than on the album, the focus was on kicking out the jams and gunning for the pleasure receptors. The setlist was essentially a hit parade, Kendrick rattling off crowd-pleasers from DAMN. and good kid, m.A.A.d. city and his guest verses from radio staples like Future’s “Mask Off” and ScHoolboy Q’s “Collard Greens” while largely setting aside his more difficult material. This was no environment for the somber meditations of “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst” or the unmoored anger of “The Blacker The Berry.” In fact, he only included two songs from To Pimp A Butterfly, the undeniable “King Kunta” and “Alright.” Not even those old Section.80 highlights made the cut, presumably because they’re obscure enough that much of his audience simply doesn’t know them. Anything that could potentially get in the way of having a good time was jettisoned.

That ruthless editing extended to the stage production. Both a DJ and a live band were clearly involved in bringing the music to life, but the only performers visible on stage were a pair martial artists, who each emerged once, and an interpretive dancer who occasionally appeared as a visual foil. (In an impressive display of balance, Kendrick rapped the first verse of “PRIDE.” perched on top of her.) The few remaining visual elements reflected Kendrick’s eye for detail, such as the blinding blue and red lights that flashed in tandem with the police sirens on “XXX.”

Occasionally his eagerness to please went overboard, particularly when he stooped to the tired concert cliché of dividing the audience in half and asking which side could scream louder. But for the most part even well-worn arena show tropes worked wonders under Kendrick’s supervision, such as the stunning array of smartphone flashlights he summoned during “LOVE.” (a trick that never seems to get old) or when he paused less than a minute into his set-closing “HUMBLE.” and let the audience rap it a cappella all the way to conclusion, only to run it back once more at full strength. According to the aforementioned Rolling Stone interview, that song’s “Sit down, be humble” chorus is intended as a rejoinder to himself, to remind him not to get a big head in the midst of his massive success. But watching him live out his sovereignty over rap in real time, it was hard to dispute the caption from one of those video shorts that read “KUNG FU KENNY FUCKIN’ EVERYONE UP.”

CHART WATCH

“Despacito” is officially the second longest running #1 hit in Hot 100 history. Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber’s Spanglish summer smash holds the top spot for a 15th consecutive week, moving it past a logjam of seven 14-week chart-toppers and putting it just one week away from Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s 16-week record with “One Sweet Day.” Billboard also notes that “Despacito” is the longest-running #1 of this century, having surpassed the other three 14-week #1s from after Y2K (Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling,” and Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together”) and is now the longest-running predominantly Spanish #1, having surpassed Los Del Rio’s “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix).”

DJ Khaled, Rihanna, and Bryson Tiller’s “Wild Thoughts” remains at #2 with a fighting chance to overtake “Despacito” next week. Bieber and BloodPop’s #31-debuting “Friends,” released just before the close of this chart window, also has a shot at #1 next week, and if not, Taylor Swift’s new single coming tonight might arrive just in time to prevent “Despacito” from setting a new 17-week record. Or Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” could receive an infusion thanks to a new Spanish remix featuring Messiah. Ditto French Montana and Swae Lee’s “Unforgettable,” which has a remix with Mariah Carey dropping tonight.

Speaking of “Bodak Yellow,” it rises to a new #3 peak this week. Surprisingly, Cardi is the first woman to reach the top 3 without any other artists on her song this year. Cardi’s ascent turns last week’s 3-4-5-6-7 into this week’s 4-5-6-7-8: French and Swae’s “Unforgettable,” Imagine Dragons’ “Believer,” Charlie Puth’s “Attention,” Shawn Mendes’ “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back,” and Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like.” Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” holds on at #9, tying the record for the longest stay in the top 10 at 32 weeks. (Two other songs lasted that long: The Chainsmokers and Halsey’s “Closer” and LeAnn Rimes’ “How Do I Live.”) And Sam Hunt’s country blockbuster “Body Like A Back Road” rises back to #10 this week.

As for the Billboard 200 albums chart: Kesha’s Rainbow is not just a triumphant comeback creatively speaking; commercially, too, the album marks a dominant return, debuting at #1 this week with 116,000 equivalent album units and 89,000 in pure sales. Per Billboard, it’s the second biggest debut by a woman this year after Katy Perry’s Witness.

Kendrick Lamar and DJ Khaled clock in at #2 and #3, respectively. And then Khalid’s American Teen rises to a new #4 peak six months after its release — people are continuing to hop on the bandwagon, I guess! Entering at #5 is rapper and Yo Gotti collaborator Moneybagg Yo with 30,000 units and 14,000 in sales for Federal 3X. And familiar titles from Ed Sheeran, SZA, 21 Savage, Imagine Dragons, and Bruno Mars round out the top 10.

POP FIVE

Miley Cyrus – “Younger Now”
Based on her track record, a new Miley Cyrus album should be so exciting. Three songs into this rollout, I am officially bored as hell.

Demi Lovato – “Tell Me You Love Me”
These new Demi singles suggests she’s figured out how to translate her churchy tendencies into genuinely entertaining pop songs. Hopefully the rest of her new album is of a similar caliber.

Thirty Seconds To Mars – “Walk On Water”
Academy Award winner Jared Leto’s latest role is apparently impersonating the dude from Imagine Dragons for an entire album cycle.

Echosmith – “Future Me”
I enjoy how every new Echosmith single is an entirely different exercise. This one is their Chvrches song. It’s a decent Chvrches song!

Rachel Platten – “Broken Glass”
The makers of “Fight Song” bring you: “Fight Song,” tropical house edition.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Demi Lovato’s sixth studio album Tell Me You Love Me is out 9/29. [Twitter]
  • Lovato will also sing the National Anthem at the Floyd Mayweather v. Conor McGregor fight. [CBS]
  • Robin Thicke is gonna be a dad again. [TMZ]
  • Bastille have covered Green Day’s “Basket Case” as the theme to Amazon’s The Tick. [Spotify]
  • Camila Cabello played her first solo festival set at Billboard Hot 100 fest over the weekend. [Billboard]
  • Logic, Khalid, Gucci Mane, Post Malone, and Julia Michaels will perform at the MTV Video Music Awards. They join previously announced performers Kendrick Lamar, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Ed Sheeran, the Weeknd, Lorde, Thirty Seconds To Mars, Fifth Harmony, and P!nk. Bleachers, Khalid, and Cardi B will play the pre-show. [MTV]
  • MTV also intends to bring active duty transgender military service members to the VMAs, CNN reports. [CNN]
  • Harry Styles will record an hour-long BBC special that’ll air in November. [NME]
  • Former Disney pop duo Alyson and Amanda Michalka have released “Take Me,” their first single as Aly & AJ in 10 years. [Elle]
  • Macklemore announced his new solo album Gemini featuring Offset, Kesha, Lil Yachty, Reignwolf, Eric Nally, and more. [XXL]
  • Some powerful California Democrats are reportedly pushing Justin Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun to run for governor. [TMZ]
  • Orange Is The New Black star Laverne Cox told Access Hollywood she’s collaborating with Beyoncé on a project. [YouTube]
  • Beyoncé and JAY-Z bought an $88M Bel-Air mansion with 30,000 square feet of living space, a spa, a media room, four outdoor swimming pools, and a full-sized basketball court. [LA Times]
  • The Chainsmokers performed at their friend’s wedding in Philadelphia. [YourEDM]
  • Ariana Grande cancelled this week’s Vietnam concert due to an unspecified health issue. [HuffPo]
  • Bruno Mars finally met the professional wrestler he’s named after. [Instagram]
  • Walk The Moon are back with a new single “One Foot” next month. [Billboard]
  • Halsey clapped back at a fan who criticized her Playboy shoot. [Instagram]
  • In other Halsey news, she likes to run her jokes by her “platonic mate” John Mayer because he’s a “comedic genius.” [Billboard]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME: REPUTATION EDITION