There are plenty of good reasons to watch the MTV Video Music Awards: spectacular fashions, watercooler moments, the occasional Kanye West mega-rant or Beyonce mega-performance.
Rarely among them, however, is the chance to watch the best songwriter alive at his peak.
Yet here the world was on Sunday, watching the show open and close with Kendrick Lamar at the mic. Lamar kicked off the VMAs with a blazing performance of DNA. and Humble., backed by a flames and ninjas and the occasional flaming ninja. And he ended the night by winning Video of the Year for Humble., his first solo No. 1 hit, the song that proved the most critically acclaimed artist of his generation could also be its most popular.
The VMAs don't usually work this way. Music doesn't usually work this way. Nothing usually works this way. But Lamar, who brings his fresh armful of VMA trophies to Tampa's Amalie Arena on Friday, has decided that it should. His second Video of the Year triumph in three years — he also won for his featured role on Taylor Swift's star-studded Bad Blood — shows just how hard the Compton rapper has worked, and how successful he has been, at bridging the traditional gap between critical adulation and mass popularity.
For all the songwriters gnashing and clawing to define the times we live in — Jason Isbell, Father John Misty, EMA, Joey Badass — none bear the pressure of being crowned the voice of a generation, and possibly the greatest of all time, like 30-year-old King Kendrick, a vicious street poet of intricate, extraordinary depth.
"Music unites us, music crosses boarders, and it takes tremendous artistry to stand out and to be a nonconformist," Humble.'s director, Dave Meyers, said at the VMA podium. "Kendrick, you are the mountaintop of that."
Countless music publications named his first two albums, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City and To Pimp a Butterfly, the best albums of 2012 and 2015, respectively, and some have already called March's emphatic, personal Damn. the best of 2017. If Damn. is nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammys, it would be Lamar's third straight such nod (not counting last year's Untitled Unmastered, a collection sopping up eight Butterfly rejects) — a feat matched in recent years only by Lady Gaga and Kanye West.
Whether he's chronicling the dark, terrifying realities of inner-city adolescence (Good Kid, M.A.A.D City), exploring the conflicted, complicated mindset of young, Black America (To Pimp a Butterfly) or reflecting on fear, faith, hubris and mortality (Damn.), his coarse, complex and creative lyrics simultaneously shock and educate and inspire, in some cases almost by accident. His single Alright became a Black Lives Matter anthem not because he set out to write a protest song, but because protesters spontaneously started shouting "We gon' be all right!" at rallies.
Indeed, Lamar's strength as a lyricist comes from writing from within, questioning how we all let this world happen instead of blaming some unspoken boogeyman in a position of power. He is by most accounts an introvert, engaged to his high school sweetheart; photos of his Oval Office meeting with Barack Obama show him sporting an abashed grin of humility. His lyrics cover distrust, depression, alienation and his role in a ruthless world. He was inspired to write The Blacker the Berry by the death of Trayvon Martin, but came down hard on himself for the hypocrisy of looking the other way on violence within his own community.
"You just get to a point where you're tired of talking about it," Lamar told Rolling Stone this month. "It weighs you down and it drains your energy when you're speaking about something or someone that's completely ridiculous. So, on and off the album, I took it upon myself to take action in my own community. On the record, I made an action to not speak about what's going on in the world or the places they put us in. Speak on self; reflection of self first. That's where the initial change will start from."
He might as well be talking about the music industry, too. As he raps on Damn., Lamar's got hustle and ambition flowing through his DNA. For all the stylistic leaps he takes on his albums, you don't drop bars on singles by Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Maroon 5, Imagine Dragons, the Weeknd, Sia, Alicia Keys and Robin Thicke unless you want to be a superstar. You don't recruit U2 — U2! — for a guest spot on your new album unless you want to walk in their footsteps.
And that's why Lamar's domination of the 2017 VMAs felt so significant. MTV doesn't normally crown critical darlings with its shiniest, sparkliest prize. But Lamar made it impossible to avoid. He snatched the spotlight from the cool kids all around him, and walked away with his integrity intact. He didn't say much upon winning the night's top prize ("Man, glory to God, every time, for giving us these amazing talents"), but then, he didn't have to. His music had already spoken volumes.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.