Pimps Only: Dissecting Kendrick Lamar's Groove Sessions

The Compton rapper has always been about making sense of our dividing lines, but on this intimate theater tour it seems more meaningful than ever.

Written by Live Nation Staff • Photography by Ellie Pritts • November 6, 2015

When Kendrick Lamar was in Chicago three years ago, he was exhausted. He'd been tirelessly working on his debut album, 2012's good kid, m.A.A.d city. It was a scenario far removed from what went down this past Thursday night, when Lamar returned to Chicago for an intimate concert at the Riviera Theater as part of his Kunta's Groove Sessions Tour. In 2012, Kendrick was still an up-and-coming name, known as much for his affiliation with mentor Dr. Dre as for his superb Section.80 mixtape. "These times go by quick," Lamar told me that afternoon three years back. "When you constantly working, you can't really feel and breath what's going on. I can't really live in the moment like I want to. I haven't soaked it all up yet."

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These days, Lamar is soaking it all in. He's currently touring as one the most revered rappers on the planet; on Thursday, he stepped out on stage demurely, flanked by a neon sign reading "Pimps Only." Standing at the front of the stage in a simple all-black getup, he teased the audience without even muttering a word. Seven months ago, Lamar released his stunning, challenging, occasionally frustrating, and definitively risk-taking second album, To Pimp a Butterfly. While the jazz-inflected, highly politicized record showed how far Lamar could take his musical muse, it also represented just how many of his fans would journey with him down the sometimes-arduous path. In concert, though, Lamar injected TPAB's songs with an aggressive energy that united rather than divided.

A lesser rapper would never have burdened himself with the challenge of executing the dense lyrics of a Kendrick Lamar track, but the Compton MC revels in giving each word its due. Tracks like Thursday's set opener "Wesley's Theory" (which inspired the name of his supremely talented backing band) found Lamar in preacher mode, his arm cocked as he delivered arduous line after arduous line. Equally impressive was the way the audience kept up with the intensity; even pop-leaning Good Kid cuts such as "Backseat Freestyle," "Swimming Pools (Drank)," and "Money Trees" were injected with a swinging, manic energy, shredding guitar solos, and whiplash drumming. On a strictly musical level it's a bold undertaking, if not one that occasionally leaves concertgoers gasping for air.

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In the wake of TPAB's release, much has been written about who exactly the album was for—whether its overt "blackness" prevented white listeners from grasping its true intent. To hear Lamar tell it, though, it's more about making sure places like Kunta's Groove Sessions exist—places where "black, white, brown, purple" people can all come together as one. It's been his mantra for a few years now: making sense of our dividing lines. It's also lucidly echoed in the now-famous line from "m.A.A.d city," which he had the crowd repeat back to him on Thursday night: "If Pirus and Crips all got along, they'd probably gun me down by the end of this song."

Lamar, who said this small tour is "the highlight of my motherfucking career," later had the crowd chant, "We gon' be alright!," a lyric that was used as a rally cry at a Cleveland protest against police brutality in August, and since repeated as an informal mantra of the Black Lives Matter movement. He also insisted that this may be the last tour he performs songs from To Pimp A Butterfly. As much as I don't want to believe him, I can't help but recall what he told me three years ago, when I asked if he still listened to Section.80: "Nah. You're only as good as your last project. I want to grow."

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