Kendrick Lamar makes history at CFP National Championship The decorated rapper’s involvement was a long time coming with ESPN

ATLANTA — “Humble yourself.”

Those were the words that Georgia linebacker Davin Bellamy shouted at Oklahoma’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield a week before the Bulldogs fell in a 26-23 overtime loss to Alabama in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday night. The Bulldogs learned that lesson the hard way, regarding the College Football Playoff National Championship.

“Sit down. Be humble.”

Those were the words Kendrick Lamar rapped in front of a crowd of nearly 3,000 who braved the cold weather at Centennial Park, at halftime of said football game. No one sat down, but they learned their lesson in the best way possible.

It wasn’t just that it also happened to be televised to millions across the nation, solidifying Lamar’s place as the most marketable pop artist in America in 2018. It wasn’t just that one of his hit songs that won six MTV Video Music Awards last year had the entire crowd moving in unison in near-freezing temperatures.

It wasn’t just that it preceded his set finale, “All the Stars,” a collaboration with his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmate SZA off the soundtrack for Marvel’s Black Panther, a project produced and curated by Lamar and his TDE squad that is set for release on Feb. 16. (The latest Black Panther trailer aired right after his performance.) It wasn’t just that it happened on the day that the president of the United States made an on-field appearance and clearly did not know the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner” before leaving the game at halftime.

It was that during the most important game of the year, in a sport largely controlled by white men, while young black men risk life and limb for no pay, a rapper from Compton, California, who often tells tales of revolution and resistance, was tapped to entertain the nation, and it all made sense. While Georgia and Alabama, two states with no shortage of history in the antebellum South and steeped in football tradition, battled it out on the field, a West Coaster dressed in a parka was easily the star of the show.

“It went very, very well,” CFP executive director Bill Hancock said. “As we had hoped, we had the best of both worlds: the traditional halftime show by those two great marching bands plus a world-class performance by Kendrick Lamar. The visuals were tremendous, and it was obvious that the folks in the park were having a terrific time.”

Perhaps most bizarrely, few people ever really blinked. If you wanted to, you could have drawn a straight line from Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s “controversial” Super Bowl performance in 2004 to Monday night. It was an event that drastically changed not just the way that halftime shows were programmed but also how the broadcast industry made its rules. Jackson took all the heat in that scenario. Now, Timberlake’s got a new album out in which he’s apparently embracing his “roots,” a far cry from his days as the funky white boy and, shocker, he’ll be performing the next Super Bowl halftime show in February.

You could think about where this country has come since then. President Barack Obama. Police brutality and the murders of unarmed black people becoming what felt like nightly appearances on the national news. A non-insignificant resurfacing of a movement to compensate college athletes for their work. A Beyoncé Super Bowl halftime show that many people took offense to, as an ode to the Black Panther Party. A massive “recorrect” by America in electing a reality show star to the White House. None of us had any reason to believe that King Kenny, or anyone like him, would grace a stage like this, in this setting, in the near future. Except for the people who made it happen.

Speaking with two ESPN senior officials who organized the event, this wasn’t some random pick out of the sky. Three years ago, they wanted to increase ratings at halftime for the CFP because they noticed that it’s the highest-rated period at the Super Bowl but was the lowest for CFP. And they wanted more casual fans to expand the brand and just be as relevant as possible, not simply cash in huge on the regionality of the game’s followers.

That’s where their relationship with Interscope Records comes into play. Imagine Dragons did a special remix. Lauren Alaina, a country artist, was in the mix. Videos with X Ambassadors. This season, they hit it big with 30 Seconds to Mars. You know the song well. Alabama did win this fight tonight.

As for Lamar, his love for the Los Angeles Lakers really helped out early on. TDE is an imprint of Interscope, of course. You might recall Lamar’s ode “Kobe Bryant: Fade to Black.” He’s a huge Kobe fan, something we’ve seen proved over time. Last year, “Humble” dropped, the NBA playoffs started, he did voice work for promos and it all worked out.

Mind you, when it was time to make choices for the halftime show, Interscope’s line is vicious. Maroon 5 is on their roster. This was no easy choice. But once they knew Lamar was involved with Black Panther, it was a wrap. It had to happen.

“We know music is probably the second-biggest passion that college football fans have,” said ESPN vice president of sports marketing Emeka Ofodile. “Let’s build a music strategy, let’s go deep with a label and let’s try to create moments.”

The goal was to create a cultural moment, be it controversial or not. To get past the regional histories of college football, they needed to go big. Lamar was a no-brainer, controversy be damned. They can’t control what people think about the president. Or what he chooses to do. It didn’t change their mission. They wanted it to be different. They didn’t want to just recreate a Super Bowl experience. They wanted real fans of both football and Lamar to be there. And that they were. The cheers for the game (being shown on the big screens at the park) leading up to halftime were as healthy as anything I’d heard all day.

Their overall goal? To make it the hottest stage in the game. They’re off to a great start.

As for the larger picture, it’s still kind of hard to believe it happened. They might let us have a hit show or two on cable. A few of us will break through. But they’ll still call us names. Yet rarely do we get to infiltrate the oldest practices in the book. To see it go down on a such a grand stage is a real testament to who Lamar has grown to become. It’s easy to call Lamar transcendent. But, like so many others who grew out of their original solitary genres as artists to become megastars, he’s in fact black as hell.

On the night in which he could have made a scene and directed the ire of so many fans of his in the direction of the commander-in-chief, or made an obvious political statement with everyone watching, he didn’t. Because he didn’t have to. His existence in that space alone was enough of a statement, and just being himself was plenty. He didn’t have to allow himself to be defined by the moment — he defined it himself. Which is what he does and is exactly why even when the leader of the free world is right next door, Lamar comes out on top.

Kendrick Lamar’s ‘DAMN.’ good run places him face to face with the president Kendrick Lamar’s ascension coincides with college football’s big moment and President Donald Trump

Fifteen-year-old Kendrick Lamar likely never thought he’d be performing at halftime of one of the biggest sporting events of 2018. Certainly not when he, as a teenager, was getting stomped at Compton, California’s, Avalon Swap Meet. But a decade and a half after the fight he references on “ELEMENT.,” from 2017’s Grammy-nominated album DAMN., here he is: headline performer at halftime of the college football national championship — the NCAA’s Super Bowl. The all-Southeastern Conference main event is Monday night in Atlanta.

College halftime shows traditionally feature marching bands. But in an effort to mirror February’s actual Super Bowl, the College Football Playoff and ESPN announced last spring that an artist would perform. Lamar’s résumé of course warrants his booking.

Forbes placed Lamar on its December 2017 cover, lauding the “antisocial extrovert” for his business decisions such as ending his long relationship with Reebok and launching a new collaboration with Nike. Lamar’s tour dates routinely gross more than $1 million per night. And in 2017, not only did he surpass even Beyoncé and Bruno Mars with more than 2 billion radio spins, but Lamar also had five of the most streamed songs of 2017. And while his 2012 “m.A.A.d city” (featuring MC Eiht) is featured in the next week’s Den of Thieves, Lamar recently confirmed that he and his Top Dawg Entertainment are producing the soundtrack for Black Panther, led by a collaboration with SZA titled “All The Stars.”

All the stars are expected to flood box suites to watch the Quavo-endorsed University of Georgia versus the crème de la crème University of Alabama. This VIP list reportedly includes President Donald Trump. From self-doubt to self-proclaimed greatness, Lamar’s ascension coincides and often collides with the United States’ 45th president.

Trump, a frequent sporting provocateur, has been an occasional target of Lamar’s lyrics dating to 2015. So speculation is swirling: What will this moment mean between the lyrically sharp MC and verbal live-wire commander-in-chief? Lamar’s fellow Comptonite, and perhaps hip-hop’s most famous Trump antagonist, YG, has at least one suggestion for Lamar.

There is drama leading up to the moment. What statement will Lamar make? Will outside forces — the NCAA, sponsors or even Disney — attempt to define the parameters of his performance? Will he even make one at all?


 

Tell me what you gon’ do to me / Confrontation ain’t nothin’ new to me/ You can bring a bullet, bring a sword / Bring a morgue / But you can’t bring the truth to me.

— “All The Stars” with SZA (2018)

Lest time forget, Lamar’s 2015 To Pimp A Butterfly is a fingerprint for an era defined by Black Lives Matter, police brutality and the final months of the country’s first black president’s administration. The record features a handful of Lamar’s most complex and analytical cuts: “i,” “Hood Politics,” “Mortal Man” and President Barack Obama’s favorite “How Much A Dollar Cost.” But undoubtedly, Butterfly’s star is “Alright.” It’s the generational equivalent to James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”

Presidential critiques aren’t foreign to Lamar’s catalog. Seven years ago, Lamar painted a picture of gangland Compton (decades before gentrification arrived) on “Ronald Reagan Era (His Evils).” 1987, the children of Ronald Reagan raked the leaves, he said of the generation directly affected by the legacy of the 40th president’s Reaganomics, Your front porch with a machine blowtorch.

The Obama era, for Lamar, brought reverence and clarity. The reality of a black president inspired pride and accomplishment. But he wasn’t blind to current and past issues: Streets don’t fail me now, they tell me it’s a new gang in town /From Compton to Congress, set trippin’ all around/ Ain’t nothin’ new, but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans, he opined on 2015’s “Hood Politics.” Lamar understood Obama’s power as president was in constant opposition with forces that sought to derail, override and neuter. Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’? / They give us guns and drugs, call us thugs / Make it they promise to f— with you / No condom, they f— with you / Obama say, ‘What it do?’

Later that same year, while then-candidate Trump was still seen by some as a political punchline, Lamar addresses growing right-wing hysteria on “Black Friday,” saying, I’m the son of the pioneer that near the sun /Play with him / B—- you better off voting for Donald Trump.

A year later, in 2016, as Trump-mania gained indestructible steam, Lamar again directed his attention to the candidate nearly two months to the date of the presidential election. Might stay in the Trump Tower for one week, he rapped on “What’s Wrong.” Spray paint all the walls and smoke weed / F— them and f— y’all and f— me. In 2017, as the reality of a Trump presidency set in, Lamar observed.

Donald Trump is a chump / Know how we feel, punk? Tell ’em God comin’ / And Russia need a replay button, y’all up to somethin’, Lamar rapped on “The Heart Pt. 4,” a month before Robert Mueller was named special counsel for the ongoing Russia investigation. But for “XXX.,” on DAMN., the reality set in for Lamar. Donald Trump’s in office / We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again / But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?

Lamar is an atypical selection for such a widely viewed event. He’s not “safe,” nor is he “routine.”

In the coming weeks we can anticipate an impending marketing avalanche for Panther, perhaps “the biggest and blackest blockbuster of all time,” with Lamar a critical component. Later this month, the seven-time Grammy winner looks to add more with seven new nominations, including going head-to-head with Jay-Z for the evening’s most coveted award, album of the year. I said it’s like that/ Dropped one classic, came right back/ ‘Nother classic, right back/ My next album, the whole industry on a ice pack, he vowed a week before DAMN.’s arrival. The promise has him on the doorstep of Grammy history on Jan 28.

Trump, in Lamar’s eyes, is the complete antithesis of what his much-loved music is about, but in many ways he is a source of inspired frustration. And the nature of Monday night’s halftime performance, even with Friday’s free-to-all dress rehearsal, is difficult to predict. Despite his undeniable star power, Lamar is an atypical selection for such a widely viewed event. He’s not “safe,” nor is he “routine.” It easy to imagine part of Lamar’s performance being veiled shots: I know how you work, I know just who you are/ See, you’s a, you’s a, you’s a— / B—- ...

So, does Lamar feel the pressure to symbolically take a knee Monday night? I, for one, don’t think it’s wise to believe anxiety will play a part in Lamar avoiding The Elephant In The A. He and TDE are from Compton, a cultural ground zero where wearing the wrong hat, or walking down the wrong block with the wrong shoelaces, sometimes came with fatal consequences. A halftime show, by comparison, is a field trip to Calabasas, California.

Illuminating truth to power is daunting. Kanye West knew what would come of his comments about President George W. Bush, but he became a larger-than-life figure afterward. Colin Kaepernick understood that taking a knee would all but involuntarily retire him, but he is now the millennial Muhammad Ali. Lamar’s life has been one risk after another — a butterfly effect set in motion as documented in the mind-numbing odyssey “DUCKWORTH.,” DAMN.’s closing number.

Trump vs. Lamar is quite the undercard for Monday night’s main event. It could very well be a culture-shifting moment spearheaded by the man who has been bestowed with the heavy title of “voice of a generation.” Lamar is well-aware of the moment he occupies and times he’s become a voice for. His message to Trump could very well come in words, via actions or even purely via symbol. Does this mean halftime will be his Kanye West 2009 MTV Video Music Awards moment? Who knows.

Whether he decides to stir the pot, whether he fulfills YG’s wish, there is a reality evident about Lamar. Nothing looks to stop the momentum he’s built over the past year. Not even the president of the United States.