Watch Kendrick Lamar save the Grammys with a transcendent performance

He might not have won the evening's biggest awards, but Kendrick Lamar stole the show.

Feb 29, 2020, 11:34 am*

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Ramon Ramirez

On a Grammy night that made time to showcase the runaway Broadway success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, it was rapper Kendrick Lamar who stunned with transcendent musical theater. 

But when it came time for the actual, prime-time awards—album of the year and song of the year—mainstream heroes Ed Sheeran (“Thinking Out Loud”) and Taylor Swift (1989) elbowed Lamar from the frame to claim the trophies.  

The performance of To Pimp a Butterfly standouts “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright” was electric and shocked social media with its prison industrial complex-spotlighting flare of trembling raps from the Compton, California, rapper. He donned handcuffs as his sax player blared from inside a jail cell. Shimmering in white against a black backdrop, the continent of Africa—with “Compton” stenciled in the center—punctuated the spectacle’s baseline intent: Lamar was here to enlighten. 

“Isn’t a song worth more than a penny?” asked National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences President Neil Portnow, standing alongside rapper Common. It was an awkwardly direct dig at streaming music—and the night’s second most political moment.

Elsewhere, Justin Bieber disturbed with a star-crossed mustache and indulged Skrillex’s rock roots.

Lady Gaga paid tribute to the late David Bowie with an ample medley of his greatest hits, while the Eagles, B.B. King, Maurice White, and Lemmy Kilmister enjoyed celeb-loaded homages. (Lemmy’s featured Alice Cooper, Johnny Depp, and Joe Perry’s sideband Hollywood Vampires kicking “Ace of Spades,” and it was boldly ridiculous.)

Beyond the forced Grammy moments and tributes, viral “All About That Bass” YouTube goddess Meghan Trainer took home best new artist honors; Adele sang off-key; and Dave Grohl enjoyed the procedural Vegas-like structure of Lionel Richie’s tribute. 

But, perhaps most curiously, one particularly high-profile billed guest (no, not Rihanna, who publicly canceled a Grammy performance despite making the red carpet) was missing from the moment.

Pitbull made it out to perform with a dazzling Sofia Vergara after the awards all went to pop magnets, quelling the Web’s restlessness once and for all.

Screengrab via CBS.com

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*First Published: Feb 16, 2016, 1:49 am