The Unofficial Winner for Best 2016 GRAMMY Performance: Kendrick Lamar

Since dropping Good Kid Maad City in 2012, Kendrick Lamar has been staking legitimate claim to Kanye West’s critically appointed title of most artistically ambitious mainstream hip-hop artist. Both GKMC and To Pimp A Butterfly are thoughtful, layered works that would receive busts next to any of Kanye’s work in a Hip-Hop Hall of Fame. It’s not only about the music, though. Like Kanye, Kendrick has displayed a knack for timely, riveting performances that serve as the definition of the term “master of ceremony.”

Enter the 2016 Grammys , where Kendrick–winner of five awards–might have officially taken that crown. On a night where Kanye exiled himself from the festivities, Kendrick and his chain gang strode onstage to hold it down for hip-hop. Kendrick’s artistry has long been a dialectic exploration of Blackness, and his performance was a clever synthesis of warring ideals.

Utilizing prison cells as his backdrop, Kendrick performed “Blacker the Berry,” his controversial indictment of white supremacy’s criminalization of Black people. Suddenly, Kendrick and his fellow prisoners broke their chains, dancing buoyantly as fluorescent tribal paint shone through their prison garb.

After a ramshackled walk through a dark abyss, Kendrick and the prisoners arrived by a campfire, dancing through a live rendition of his feel-good song, “Alright.” The saxophone that blared through both songs was the unifier. The sorrowful bellows of the sax player in his prison cell turned into hopeful wails that soared into the night during “Alright,” representing two divergent junctures of the Black experience.

Kendrick concluded with an additional a cappella verse, declaring that the racial divide is a “conversation for the entire nation. This is bigger than us.” That’s true, but on this night no one was bigger than Kendrick.


Alex Oka