Kendrick Lamar And The National Symphony Orchestra Took Over D.C. Last Night

The rapper delivered a powerful set in close proximity to some of his biggest targets.

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Kendrick Lamar's sophomore major label release, To Pimp A Butterfly, has now been in the world for six months but the album's messages of hope are still relevant as ever—especially when they're played with the backing of a full orchestra just a mile away from the White House.

Kendrick he decided to up the ante of an intense tour schedule by announcing plans to play the LP backed by the National Symphony Orchestra. It’s not the first time a rapper has hosted such a performance—Migos played a "trap symphony" with a nine-piece orchestra this summer and last year Nas celebrated the 20th anniversary of Illmatic in a similarly symphonic fashion as part of the same NSO Pops series.

Yet in the hands of Kendrick Lamar, the tried and tested approach was destined to take on a life of its own. Rather than breathing fresh life into old material, the evening was Kendrick’s way of calmly announcing his continuing commitment to being bigger, better and more innovative. His fans responded accordingly and tickets sold out in just five minutes.

On Tuesday night, the 28-year-old rapper demonstrated his talent not just as a skilled lyricist and dexterous rapper, but as a canny master of crowd control.

But before the man of the hour casually strolled out of the wings, dragging his mic stand behind him across the hallowed stage of Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center, it was up to the NSO and flamboyant conductor Steven Reineke to entertain the crowd. Flinging themselves into a dramatic instrumental medley of To Pimp A Butterfly material, they quickly had the crowd howling with joy as they bombastically delivered the album’s key tracks, reimagined like a lavish John Williams soundtrack.

“I feel like we have a stewardship to the great American songbook and to me that’s always being written. It’s not just Irving Berlin and George Gershwin,” enthused Reineke to Washington’s Top News ahead of the show. “It’s guys of today who are writing and they have something important to say.”

Such mainstream acceptance has given rise to opportunities like last night’s show, though Kendrick approached the affair with a balance of respect and playfulness—he started his set with the spiraling "For Free?," which of course meant his first words to the suited and booted Kennedy crowd were “This dick ain’t free.” Reineke offered a wry smile and a shake of his head, while the orchestra beautifully complimented the sound. Having made his point, he segued into “Wesley’s Theory.” That song brought the first of many lyrical nods to government and Kendrick’s distrust of power, all the more potent considering the evening’s location.

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Suddenly, out of the smoky jazz bar noodling, Kendrick called “Everybody up!” and the crowd complied, bouncing out of their seats en masse to huge violin swells. The To Pimp A Butterfly run continued apace with a short version of “Institutionalized” before the Orchestra dropped the “Backseat Freestyle” riff and turned the good kid, m.A.A.d city single into the greatest James Bond theme you’ve never heard. With everyone still on their feet, the setlist quickened its stride and rolled through snapshots of “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “These Walls” as Kendrick grinned widely, saying, “We’ve got all night.” In reality “all night” meant just over an hour, but Kendrick still managed to find the time to preach about the power of love, delivering a simple but impassioned speech about racial injustice and religion, (“We’re all God’s children”) before an epic “Maad City” broke the reverie, with string stabs in place of Schoolboy Q’s guttural "Ya! Ya! Ya! Ya!" refrain.

It was there and on the brass-section boosted “King Kunta,” that Kendrick’s effortless performance skills came to the fore. In the same way Reineke was in charge of the orchestra, Kendrick commanded the crowd, conducting, teasing and riling them with just a simple dip of his finger, getting them to up, down and dancing, and later turning them totally mute upon asking them to think of To Pimp A Butterfly as a tribute to themselves. That stillness was shattered for “i,” which was followed by a cinematic rendition of “The Blacker The Berry,” and then capped off by a rousing encore of “Alright.” Last night proved once again that Kendrick is innovative as any other performer from his peer group, while still remaining one of the genre’s finest tradition-keepers. That’s something any Washington insider can understand.

Kendrick Lamar And The National Symphony Orchestra Took Over D.C. Last Night