The weirdest thing about Kendrick Lamar’s free concert last night wasn’t that it was performed with a full band on the back of a truck while driving down a blocked off Sunset Strip with hundreds of kids running behind it. It was that he didn’t play a single song off his recently released album, To Pimp a Butterfly. [Correction: At the end of his set, he did play TPaB's “Alright.”]
Let me back up: Last week, L.A. Weekly received a top-secret invitation from Reebok to take part in a “once in a lifetime fusion of fitness and music.” The event would be capped at 100 participants, all of whom had to agree to a three-mile run. Details got a little fuzzy at that point, but the incentive seemed to be getting a Kendrick Lamar concert at the finish line.
Another note came later. We’d get a few minutes with Kendrick post-concert/run, but a couple things were off-limits. Nothing “controversial (race/politics/etc.).” He also would not be “open about discussing his new album.”
I woke up on Tuesday feeling oddly nervous. While I’ve been a runner for years, I’m not a group sport kinda gal. Also, I was going to have to interview Kendrick sweaty. Eek. But a package arrived from FedEx with head-to-toe Reebok gear, including the ZPump, the new shoe this whole thing seemed to be promoting. I tried it all on and felt like one of those L.A. girls who doesn’t really work out but dresses like she’s always headed to the gym. Cool.
At the Reebok Lounge on Melrose that night, the ruse was still on and strong. Right around the time buses carted us to a parking lot catty corner to the Roxy, Kendrick tweeted a couple addresses, one of which was the Lounge. Still, nobody knew what was about to happen.
Some famous personal trainer took us through some CrossFit warmups. It was so blustery that Sunset felt like a wind tunnel, and a few people speculated we’d just load the buses back up and call it a night. One of the organizers told us we'd be running behind a truck on the right side of Sunset. I noticed a small crowd had started to form outside the lot and gave them an internal eye roll. They were going to feel stupid when they realized we weren’t anybody famous.
Then the truck pulled up with a… band on the back. It took a minute to realize that the guy in grey sweats was Kendrick. It took me a few more minutes to realize we were going to be chasing him down Sunset and that — ohhhhh, This was the concert.
As the truck ambled along — seriously, this was more of a walk/skip — people spilled out of hotels and bars and hung out their apartment windows to see what was going on. Yelawolf, wearing sunglasses and looking like Matthew McConaughey, waved from the sidewalk. An elderly woman smiled and did the chin-up dance. One dude followed us piggybacking his girl, who had on heels. True love.
And considering it was one of the most famous rappers shutting down one of the most trafficked streets in the city (what could possibly go wrong?), it went really smoothly, even if I later heard a cop later say it had been a “debacle.” Earlier, I’d had a little trouble reconciling Kendrick the artist with the corporate aspect of the event, but it made sense. To his knowledge, a free, traveling concert down the Strip had never been done before, and Reebok could make it happen. Kendrick is L.A.’s Robin Hood.
The one thing he didn’t give the people, however, was a performance of anything from To Pimp a Butterfly, or anything other than songs from good kid, m.A.A.d. city. As the truck worked its way back down to Melrose, Kendrick asked what fans wanted to hear, and the loudest shouts were for “King Kunta.” He just sorta laughed. And in the post-interviews, any question about music was immediately shut down. (I did find out that he does pushups because when he was young, his just-out-of-jail uncles taught him those were the most effective exercise.) [Correction: Again, he did play “Alright” at the end of his set. Unfortunately, journalists at the event were called away to prep for their post-performance interviews before he played it, which is why our writer missed it. – Ed.]
Maybe he thought the politically charged TPaB wasn’t complementary to a corporate event. Maybe he wasn't into the idea of pimping his most complicated, complex album alongside a sneaker. Maybe he's more comfortable being the kid on GKMC as opposed to the man who emerged on TPaB. Maybe he just hasn’t rehearsed it yet. He wasn't giving any answers last night. But hey, he did give me a pretty good workout.