Kendrick Lamar with Symphony Orchestra

Before playing his final song on Tuesday evening, SummerSlam night, Kendrick Lamar asked the sold-out auditorium in Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center for a moment of silence. This was not a political gesture. He wanted everyone to “feel the energy in the room,” which they did, at least until someone in the balcony seats yelled, “Vibe!” and killed, yes, the vibe.

Still, the brief bit of quiet felt profound simply because of how joyfully loud the previous hour had been. When it was announced a month ago that Lamar would perform selections from his new album To Pimp a Butterfly in a one-off show with the National Symphony Orchestra, it sounded a bit like it was meant to be a cultural-credibility exchange: Hip-hop revealed as highbrow, classical revealed as popular, and everyone claps politely at the end. This framework did not turn out to be very helpful—there was nothing polite, nothing theoretical, about the concert. Backed by the dozens of symphony players and his own funk-rock band in front of an audience that seemed mostly filled with ecstatic fans, Lamar’s music gained a crowd-pleasing intensity that’s often only hinted at on his albums.

It’s not new for popular musicians to team with classical orchestras; last night’s concert was a follow-up to one the NSO did with Nas a few years ago. But watching the show, I kept flashing back to, of all things, Metallica’s 1999 collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony, which resulted in an album called S&M. This was partly because Lamar’s own touring band has for a while now been more of a rock act than anything else, and partly because when there are strings thrumming and brass booming in time with guitar riffs and a spittle-flinging vocalist, it can’t help but inspire head banging.

Sometimes the metal vibes were made explicit, as during an insane performance of “M.A.A.D. City” that culminated in an ’80s-arena guitar solo. Other times, it was a mere fact of volume: The strutting rhythm “King Kunta” sounded less like “Smooth Criminal” (which it samples) than a heavy “My Sharona,” and the symphony’s strings added a stabbing, pulse-raising pattern that recalled police sirens.

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