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Kendrick Lamar Gets His Curtain Call

Kendrick Lamar at Life Is Beautiful 2023 on September 23, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Christopher Polk/Billboard via Getty Images

It is strange to write a concert review for a show I was not physically at, but Kendrick Lamar turned us all into spectators for his West Coast celebration on Wednesday night. The Pop Out: Ken & Friends in Los Angeles was live telecasted on Amazon Prime on the occasion of Juneteenth, two days after Kendrick's 37th birthday. The concert was a lot of things: a showcase of who's up next in the California rap scene, a celebration of the last 30 years of West Coast rap, an unofficial gang picnic—but above all else, it was a victory lap. It was the rap equivalent of the last minute of an NBA Finals blowout, with Kendrick giddily running up the score in his beef with Drake. And that's before we get to the six times that "Not Like Us" was played.

The last few months have been a whirlwind of animosity between Kendrick and Drake. The two have gone back and forth several times, but Kendrick indisputably came out on top thanks to a tidal wave of a hit record calling the biggest rapper in music a pedophile. When the Ken & Friends concert was first announced, it seemed like an opportunity for both Kendrick and West Coast rap to capitalize on that success. If it wasn't already apparent that Kendrick would use the night to keep his foot on Drake's neck, it became so when he opened his set with "Euphoria," inciting an entire stadium of people to rap along to a hook-free, seven-minute song of nothing but harsh bars. That's just the kind of night this was.

And all of Los Angeles came out to fete their guy and rep their city and/or various gang affiliations. DJ Mustard, Ty Dolla $ign, Dom Kennedy, YG, Steve Lacy, Tyler The Creator, Roddy Ricch, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock, among others, made appearances and performed at various points in the evening. The latter three came out during Kendrick's set for a Black Hippy reunion of sorts, that collective being the original pillars of Top Dawg Entertainment's ascent. It was a night of nostalgia and LA unity as much as it was a dance on the grave of a popular rap star, although there was a lot of both.

Just as it was all those years ago, it was apparent last night just how much Kendrick stands apart as the star and the modern face of West Coast hip-hop. He might be slight of stature, but the force of his personality comes across much bigger; he bounced across the stage resplendent in a bright red hoodie and hat that not only betrayed his own neighborhood ties but communicated how out for blood he was on the night. Even the singles and records he chose for the evening, like "Element" and "King Kunta," felt juiced with new venom at his opponent. And the crowd was in his palm, feverishly spouting his lyrics back to him all night, especially on his diss tracks.

There is a part of this that could've felt corny, like an overemphatic gloating session. And that's before we get to Dr. Dre showing up, a man whose presence adds an unpleasant level of irony to Kendrick spending the evening accusing his peer of hating women and being friends with guys with "weird cases." It was also not to mention a majority white audience screaming "they not like us" and "we don't wanna hear you say [N-word] no more." But also that's rap for you; it can be hypocritical and ugly and transformative and exciting all at the same time.

What ultimately made this concert a success was how much Kendrick refused to make it about him and insisted upon making it about California, a region and a music scene that can be proudly insular but has also managed to be at the forefront of rap no matter the decade. Kendrick wasn't the only one taking a victory lap—the entire state was joining him. From the rappers to the dancers to the DJs to the gangsters to ballplayers like Russell Westbrook and DeMar DeRozan—and yes, you already know LeBron was there, probably fighting every urge he had not to jump on stage with everyone else. Los Angeles hasn't partied like this since the O.J. Bronco chase. This was their moment and they made the most of it.

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