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.