Toward the end of his electric performance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Kendrick Lamar let it be known:
"You ain’t gotta tell me that I’m the one/I could put a rapper on life support/Guarantee something that none of you want."
We are living in the era of Cornrow Kenny.
This could be a rebuttal to my colleagues' pieces on Drake and Future being the best rappers alive in 2015, but that seems unnecessary. The people already know who the man with the plan is. Kendrick Lamar is head and shoulders above the rest.
Lamar has entered a rarified zone of artistry that few musicians get to experience. Think Stevie Wonder in the '70s: Innervisions, Songs in the Key of Life vs. good kid, m.A.A.d city, To Pimp a Butterfly; same shit, different decade. The god was nominated for 11 Grammys this year, one short of tying Michael Jackson's record of 12. That level of acknowledgment is unheard of for a rapper, particularly when it comes to the Grammys (though they did actually get the rap categories right this year, for the most part).
But back to the point. His performance on The Tonight Show marks the second time Lamar surprised us during a live set with the premiere of a new song—one that probably will never be officially released—on national television. The first was on Colbert Report's send-off show in December 2014 when he gave us the first installment of his (hopefully continuing) "Untitled" series. We all clamored for the CDQ just like we did when Kanye premiered "Wolves" on Saturday Night Live, but having an .mp3 file isn't as important as living in those moments.
Take 'Ye's "All Day" for example. A rough version of the song made its way onto the 'net, bringing demand to a fever pitch. Cats were beasting so much for that record, they made a fake version and put it on YouTube. Motherfuckers even played that fake version on the radio.
Then the 2015 Brit Awards came and Kanye shocked the world by finally dropping the official version in all of its fire-breathing splendor. The CDQ came and went. Why? Because the live version was better; it was a moment. In hindsight, Kanye should've ignored his stans and left "All Day" on stage in Great Britain. We still haven't gotten "Wolves" yet. Kanye might as well wait to give that to us when SWISH drops in February.
A few months after Lamar's Colbert Report performance, we asked jazz musician and Lamar contributor Terrace Martin about whether or not "Untitled" would see the light of day:
"Nah, man. That’s just a moment. It’s just a moment, man. You know what’s funny? I thought, “I liked that song, we should do it,” but now I kinda fell into that whole vibe, too: It’s just a moment. We don’t have moments no more.... I think Kendrick wanted to give the kids a moment. Hip-hop doesn’t give kids moments no more. It’s just, “Here, the record’s out, buy it!” He did that for us. Just for us to have a moment."
Living in the moment is becoming Kendrick's thesis. While speaking with Jimmy Fallon before hitting us on the head with yet another emotional performance of yet another one-off song, Kendrick confessed he wanted to make an album that sounded like TPAB from the jump but didn't have the confidence to do so. That's not the case anymore. And while he's humble in interviews, he's the opposite in the booth and on stage. Kendrick is really feeling himself, and it started with that Colbert Report performance.
An artist performing a never-before-heard, never-to-be-released, politically-charged track on late night television is incredibly bold. That's not how you sell records. Artists usually go on late night to promote their latest by performing their newest hit. By contrast, Kendrick uses his air time to promote his artistry, to remind us that he's more than a studio version, even though that version is pretty damn good. Not only does Kendrick give us his soul while he's on stage, but he's giving us an exclusive world premiere—something that may never be heard outside of that performance again.