Kenrick Lamar in Atlanta - A Review of Kunta's Groove Sessions

By: Berlin Howell

Memphis to Atlanta is quite a drive for a Tuesday, but I would gladly have traveled much further for one of Kunta’s Groove Sessions, a short tour of intimate Kendrick Lamar performances. Away from the dreary skies of Tennessee, my friend Ramon and I left for the 2,000-person venue The Tabernacle around noon. Part of me is embarrassed to admit that I missed my art class for a show, but mostly I’m already prepared to tell my future kids that I was among the first people to ever see To Pimp A Butterfly (2015) performed live for an audience. Perhaps Dr. Peña might grant me absolution knowing that the Atlanta date was the first of only four Groove Sessions, as Kendrick told the crowd that these would be his first and last times playing the magnum opus.

Exactly four months to the day prior to his new album’s surprise release, Kendrick Lamar performed his Grammy-winning song “i” on Saturday Night Live. His exerting vocal delivery and furious word-smithing was surrounded by a stunning, huge-sounding live band and finished “i” with what was—for the time being—an untitled, unreleased closing verse. Afterwards, in March of 2015, the album was out and that verse was revealed to be the lyrics of a song called “Momma.” We’re nearing the end of October, almost nine months since it dropped, and I only recently realized with a jolt that Kendrick gave us To Pimp A Butterfly long before the record hit shelves. In the third line borrowed from the outro of the ninth track, Lamar reveals the three overarching representations of the butterfly’s struggles: woman, money, mankind. A timeless and multi-faceted story is told on this seminal album, and its title, as Kendrick declared, will be worth studying “forever… in college courses.” The three subjects are applicable to each of their own versions of the title: three sections about the butterfly pimped sexually by women, pimped financially by money, and pimped historically by mankind.

Watching Kendrick in awe on SNL was in no way related to the conceptual nature of his songs, but at that point I was a witness for the first time to video of his concert capabilities, and immediately determined to experience a K. Dot show in person.

When the people begged for the follow up to good kid, m.A.A.d city, they were in no way prepared for the Top Dawg Entertainment rapper’s densely conceptual epic. The use of the butterfly analogy broadens immensely the scope of this metamorphic tale, and Lamar (born Kendrick Duckworth), meditates on potential, manipulation, and his transformation over the three years since good kid. You may be saying to yourself, “So the kid is the caterpillar, and Compton is the cocoon, this must be the fairy-tale version of Tupac’s The 7 Day Theory.” Though Makaveli’s Christ-figure cover is haunting and debatably befitting, the butterfly brings a non-violent and much more tender association for the object of the comparison. 

These were interesting decisions, because in the past Kendrick has frequently utilized violent and often gruesome images. Good kid’s cinematic narrative was appropriately Compton-exclusive, while on 2015 release, Kendrick looks far beyond his hometown. He fantasizes about moving the “Compton swap-meet to the White House,” and when he’s possessed by Anna Wise and Bilal on “Institutionalized,” they talk about running the country and breaking the law at the aforementioned 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

To Pimp a Butterfly is an epic in all the same ways as Homer’s The Odyssey: a worthy hero’s journey is dictated through poem, and he leaves home to go “searching for answers”—a line in the album-spanning, interwoven narration—as he faces and overcomes obstacles all over the world before his return. A dramatic conceptual revelation occurs at the end of the last track “Mortal Man,” and Kendrick is revealed to have always been reading a cumulative poem, piece by piece as the album progressed song by song. When the poem closes, he directly addresses his audience, a live-and-well Tupac Shakur. 

Before Tuesday, I had guessed that we might hear some of Kendrick’s newest material, but I had no idea that we were headed towards a monumental occasion. After leaving Memphis we passed east-bound through a lengthy chunk of Mississippi (my low-key home state), and the rain stopped right before Corinth. During the entirety of that anxious drive, superstition kept us from hearing Kendrick. I have been wary for years of a rumor that it’s bad luck to listen to an artist on the way to his or her show—no matter how long or short. We spent the majority of the way bouncing around albums, but no release of the year (or maybe the decade) has piqued my interest quite like this one. 

Atlanta surprised us with a friendly welcome and we found a place to park within eyesight of The Tabernacle. My superstition must have come in handy, because our golden spot was the least significant instance of good luck that we experienced that night in Atlanta.

Tuesday was The Wesley Theory’s first appearance alongside Kendrick, and the band opened not with their namesake—the album’s opener—but with an instrumental rendition of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Can’t Hide Love” (1976). This walk-out song was a nod to the classic band, back when their paths crossed onstage at Bonnaroo in June.

As the band grew silent, K. Dot moved onstage and over to an elegant white couch. A neon “PIMPS ONLY” sign hung in red above him, I felt for a minute maybe Kendrick wasn’t interested in stoking the fires of a party that night, but story-telling over the ambiance of a jazz club. He confessed earlier in April that “For Free?” is his favorite song from the record, so I was not surprised when Kendrick stood, strolled to the mic, was quiet for a time, then broke the silence with the refrain, a cappella.

“This d*ck ain’t free,” were Kendrick’s first words, and though the line without context seems vulgar only for the sake of vulgarity, To Pimp a Butterfly is full of deep, dark, and troubling sexual confessions. “For Free?” is a brain-joggling free-form jazz piece overlaid with Lamar’s twisting, erratic verse. “I am not to be taken advantage of,” is the PG version of the declaration and warning. The caterpillar is up against a plethora of parties wishing to manipulate him. His foes include the dark side of the rap industry, alluring women (as featured on this song as one of three voicemails reminiscent of good kid, m.A.A.d city), and institutionalization. 

The tricky, rapid-fire verse transitioned into a tension-building rendition of the “Wesley’s Theory” intro, and Kendrick had then convinced me fully of his authenticity. No backing vocals jumped in to cover up Kendrick’s breath-taking, no blatant human band viciously ripped through these songs, and the crowd was piling on adoration thick. “Institutionalized” followed, along with a mix of older songs, and an incredible array of every song on To Pimp a Butterfly except for one (despite this fact I am maintaining he played the whole thing). “You Gotta Lie (Momma Said)” was the song omitted—which is coincidentally The Needle Drop’s least favorite track; if he’s obligated to name one at all. A full set list can be found in Funkatopia’s excellent review of the night.

One prevalent aspect of the record is the notion of duality, as “u” is the paired reciprocal to “i”, just as “For Free?” is to “For Sale?” The song “u” is anomalous, with Kenrick speaking in third person about himself. In this song he delivers a cutthroat monologue of Shakespearean-proportion, full of audible tears and the deepest expression of self-loathing that one man could possibly muster. Raw vocals are relentless, and he relentlessly barrages himself with devastating accusations about his career: “The world don’t need you—don’t let them deceive you.” He also accuses himself about his family: 

“Where [is] your patience? […] Where was the influence you speak of? You preached in front of one hundred thousand, but never reached her.”    

The girl in reference is his pregnant baby sister, whom he speaks about again in tragic self-deprecation: 

“You the reason why mama and them leavin’… you say you love them, I know you don’t mean it.”

Vulnerability is the attribute most closely shared between Kendrick and the butterfly. On “u,” he begins with a horrific scream and follows with a schizophrenic repetition of “Lovin’ you is complicated,” which is what truly connects the song to “i” at a deeper level than their titles being opposites. The album’s first single, Isley Brothers sampling “i” is Lamar’s glorious proclamation of self-appreciation, a choral chant whose mentality could feasibly better us all: “I love myself.” With this lyric in consideration in comparison to its corresponding reciprocal, we are left to imply that “i”’s message is paralleled by “I hate myself”, one of the rap industry’s most vulnerable admissions.

For Kenrick, The Tabernacle was an intimate venue by his standards, but 2,000 capacity shows are hard to come by in Memphis. On top of catching fifteen of the album’s sixteen songs that made it to the show (crucial for me were “These Walls,” “Complexion (A Zulu Love),” and “u”), I was nonetheless extremely comfortable, as well as fully aware of our surely unanimous positive experience. I am only nineteen years old, but from what I have gathered, those are even harder to come by.

Basic level musical ability is not a quality that could exist to fully recreate the album musically, but The Wesley Theory handled the tricky songs with ease. Kendrick led them like a conductor, jerking and motioning, stopping and starting them on upbeats in unnatural, but seamless unison. The show was a study in maximalism, and mind-boggling, layered instrumentals thundered. Not only was he a master puppeteer leader of the band, but he conducted us too in the audience into an electric mass of outstretched and waving arms.

Though the sonic elements are what solidify this music’s timelessness, To Pimp A Butterfly’s narrative alone is dense enough to study for plenty of anyone’s time. I daresay the rhetoric used is reminiscent of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail, in the way that both King and Lamar spend substantial time building their cases before unloading the full potency of their ultimate message.  “The Blacker the Berry” and “Mortal Man” were the night’s closing argument, a pair of viciously broadcast anthems. “The Blacker the Berry” is a logical destruction of the butterfly’s concluding enemy: mankind. Variations in darkness give the title its meaning, but the song dives into the deepest and darkest blacks of hatred.

Approaching the album’s finale, the butterfly has long passed his metamorphosis, and when “Mortal Man” began I knew the set was coming to a close. “When sh*t hits the fan, is you still a fan?” Kendrick asked of us during the last song, which on tape, segues into the final and full reading of the poem. No poem was read, but instead we got a heartfelt reassurance. “I always say that this room isn’t fans, it’s family,” he told us before walking off stage. Before he had even disappeared, the room began a slow crescendo, chanting the Groove Session’s thus-far absent “Alright.” Again and again, approaching deafening volume we cheered, “we gon’ be alright,” and all our rain-dancing worked to summon Kendrick for an earth-wrecking finish.

I felt my role at this point shifted, from active participant to willing observer, when the opening sample from “Wesley’s Theory” played over Kendrick’s bowing. The sample is a Boris Gardner clip, the title of which provides the only lyric, and while it faded we knew he was leaving for real this time. I contemplated the limit to which I could ever empathize with Lamar’s plight, because racial turmoil will never plague me in any of the capacities he sings of, and I will never face the demons which he exposes so thoroughly throughout his album. I can only hope to absorb as much as I can from the masterwork of an author like Kendrick Lamar. 

Finally, I pray that this transcription of my experience sufficiently grants me further forgiveness from Dr. Palmer and Dr. O’Hare, because I did not make it back to Memphis until Wednesday for class.

Berlin Howell is a Sophomore Creative Writing major at Christian Brothers University, an avid music critic, and a staff writer for the Galleon.

Posted by Josh Colfer at 4:06 PM

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