Kendrick Lamar’s Victory Lap Unites Los Angeles

Kendrick Lamar’s sold-out homecoming at the Kia Forum, an arena just outside Los Angeles, promised pyrotechnics with its name alone: “The Pop Out: Ken & Friends.”

The “Pop Out” ensured drama — it’s from a line in Lamar’s “Not Like Us,” his recent No. 1 song, and a scathing salvo in his war of words with Drake.

The “& Friends” guaranteed surprise appearances from high-profile names: ultimately Dr. Dre, YG, Tyler, the Creator, Roddy Rich, Schoolboy Q and Steve Lacy, among many others. The whole thing would go down on Juneteenth, the annual celebration of Black emancipation in America, after a battle in which Lamar questioned Drake’s status within the Black community.

Lamar, the most celebrated rapper of a generation, had unofficially won the most high-profile hip-hop diss war in 20 years. Fans who came in person (the event was also streamed on Amazon Music) arrived anticipating a victory lap.

Lamar’s official merch booths offered T-shirts that referenced the Drake beef, but many fans opted to bring their own, far more pointed homemade versions. Using an app, Nicole Flemate from Reedley, Calif., pasted Drake’s face onto a box of a drug used for weight loss that Lamar accused him of using. “I took the little nice lady out and threw Drake on there. I looked for the worst picture of Drake,” she said, all laughs and smiles.

The symbolism of the show being held on Juneteenth was not lost on the crowd, many clad in colorful shirts that celebrated the holiday. Ayeshia Garrett and her husband, Jamaal, who made the trip from Chicago, both wore Juneteenth attire. “Everything Kendrick does has significance,” she said. “He wants us to think deeply, beyond the art. He’s trying to educate us.” She added, “We have to show up and let Kendrick know we know what this is about.”

Irene Kirkland from Pasadena, Calif., found significance in how a line from the battle connected to the holiday. “I remember Drake was saying, ‘Oh you rap like you trying to free some slaves.’ And then Kendrick comes back on Juneteenth — the day that we were freed — and then pops out with a Juneteenth concert. How epic is that?”

The all-star lineup poured out during DJ Mustard’s opening set. The crowd screamed for Tyler, jumped for Roddy Ricch and both screamed and jumped for YG. Before Lamar emerged, the crowd began to chant a vulgar taunt aimed at Drake that plays off the name of his OVO record label.

“Kendrick stood on business the whole time, for real. He didn’t lie in anything that he said,” the San Diego engineering student Adrian Vargas said. “And Drake just did a whole lot of denying. Saying that he doesn’t want to do this anymore, saying I don’t want to beef anymore. Kendrick kind of solidified his spot as the best.”

Within a set packed with hits, Lamar performed three of his five Drake diss tracks, opening with “Euphoria” and adding additional lines referencing Drake’s purchase of a ring that previously belonged to Tupac Shakur. He punctuated the slight by covering Shakur’s 1995 No. 1 “California Love” later in the set alongside Dr. Dre, who produced it. Members of the crowd rapped along to his incredibly wordy tracks aimed at his foe, sometimes pairing off and shouting the songs in their friends’ faces.

Lamar closed the show by performing “Not Like Us,” over and over again, the crowd erupting like a powder keg for the first four of the five run-throughs. After the fifth and final version, a small, informal cypher of fans emerged. Jonny Williams, who flew in from Dover, Del., was part of the group rapping it a sixth time as the instrumental played and the crowd filed out. “He could keep playing” the song, he said. “Honestly.”

The beef, however, was only half the story. Gathering many of his guests onstage for a group photo, Lamar reminded the crowd that the event was also about something larger: “Unity.”

“It ain’t got nothing to do with no back-and-forth records, it’s got everything to do with this moment right here,” he announced, underscoring how different factions of the Los Angeles rap world had showed up. The afternoon’s ultimate goal, he said, was “to bring all of us together.”

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