Sometimes the most obvious and predictable answer is the right one: Kendrick Lamar is the best rapper alive. If there was any conflict, it was amicably resolved sometime around 11 PM on a Sunday night on the main stage at America's biggest festival in this apocalyptic year of our lord(e), 2017.
The "best rapper alive" isn't a lifetime title. As Biggie explained and tragically embodied, your reign on the top can be short like leprechauns. The position can be vacant for years, as it was in the window between Wayne and Kendrick. Influence and popularity are important but only part of the equation. Streaming numbers, packed pop up shops, and charisma can only take you so far. You can't win the Electoral College but lose the popular vote. You can be YG, arguably the best album artist of your generation, but so regionally specific that your music gets mangled in translation. You can be Young Thug, bending the English language and esoteric rhythms to your supervillainous will, but unable to convince closed minded conservatives that you're doing anything but mumbling.
This is a matter of souls and minds, virtuosic skill and marrow-splitting substance, the ability to summon that supernatural condition that wherever you're performing is the heartbeat of the universe and everything else is irrelevant. It's when you're able to chant, "This What God Feel Like" from your new song, "GOD." and induce chills in the crowd, who nod their heads in stunned disbelief, and silently understand this is as close as anyone is going to get tonight.
Kendrick Lamar did it last night. If you were there, you barely need elaboration. You caught Kobe swishing 20-foot fadeaways in '09, corkscrewing his body from three defenders. You watched Babe Ruth call his shot or at least Reggie Jackson hitting three bombs in a World Series Game. You caught Hendrix in his guitar-torching prime and the other HNDRXX smashing "Mask Off" again. This is hyperbole. I know. Nothing special is really like anything else and I'm all too aware that there is no glory in the hyperventilating recap. I'm just telling you what I saw, and I am sure what I saw. In an era where it feels like nothing matters, Kendrick managed to do something that felt like it mattered.
This wasn't Woodstock or even Monterey Pop. This is a festival owned by AEG, awash in Becky's and Braden's, so many snaps and selfies that if you stretched them all out in a digital vapor trail it would reach so far that you actually could get God on the phone. But give them credit. "DNA" bumped from the car of a Mexican dude in a burnt maroon Mustang as I walked in. My Uber driver, a dreadlocked guy named Sheldon, had it blasting as I entered the car. On these fields built for polo, that obsolete sport of the wealthy and indolent, I stood next to four blonde girls with designer sunglasses, enough concealer and glitter to disregard Kendrick's "No Make Up," and skirts as small as scarves. They knew every word, deep cuts, singles, and those from the three-day old Damn. So did everyone else around me.
This was a hometown crowd transplanted deep in the desert led by a diminutive king from the CPT, subverting both expectations and his audience. It was brilliant because almost everyone else here desperately tried to give the crowd what they wanted; Kendrick, aloof but amiable, gave them what they didn't even know they needed.
The Coachella headlining performance is one of those rigged Raiders of the Lost Ark traps, especially for rappers. You can play it safe and lean on surprise guests and the hits, reticent to let your star power command the gargantuan audience. This can be extremely fun, but it often devolves into the "Super Happy Fun Hour." It's what Dre and Snoop did—an excellent performance marred by a necrophiliac Hologram that stole the headlines. You can be Drake and arrogantly assume the burden of carrying the entire spectacle. He eschewed creative visuals or a proper stage set up and instead relied on a fireworks display, swiftly aging hits, and an impromptu tongue tsunami with Madonna. When it was over, they had to peel him off the pavement like Wile E. Coyote flattened by an anvil.
Kendrick ducked the falling debris and came out blasting with the best Coachella headlining set since Prince. He didn't bring out Morris Day and the Time, but Travis Scott ("Goosebumps,") Future ("Mask Off,") and Schoolboy Q ("That Part") weren't a shabby second place, and I'm still betting Dre appears next weekend). It was the best rap show since Yeezus. He performed with the confidence of a man walking into a bank with only a finger in his pocket and walking out with a treasury's worth of racks and precious metals.
If there's been a knock on Kendrick, it's that he can come off humorless on record (also known as Nasir Jones Syndrome). It ultimately doesn't matter; no one read Les Miserables for the jokes. But there's a part of me that agrees with something Paul Thomas Anderson once said in an interview: everything should be occasionally funny. It's the natural yin and yang, a light and dark duality. Few did it better than early Eminem, one of Kendrick's most salient influences. A bleak dirge like "Rock Bottom" balanced by the goofy whimsy like "As the World Turns." Until now, Kendrick could make you levitate, but he couldn't do levity.
Kendrick's new stage show deftly redresses the criticism from jump with a three-part mini-film, "The Legend of Kung Fu Kenny: The Way the Glow." An absurd parody of a 70s Shaw Brothers flick, it recast Kendrick as the closest analog to the RZA if he could rap as well as Raekwon—a reminder that one of his early classics was "West Coast Wu-Tang," where he ransacked the "Tearz" beat. He called himself "the black turtle," an obvious nod to race, a less obvious one to his role as the underdog, the slow and steady one who won the race.
On a blue background read the phrase, "Kung Fu Kenny Studied The Mothafuckin' Greats." An emphasis on the years of solitary practice, decrypting rhyme schemes, and throat-slitting freestyle cyphers. He spit with the fervor and dazzling technicality of a Zen master. Kendrick is the best because he comes from the tradition and reveres it, but refuses to be dogmatic. It's experimental music with mass appeal. He knows where he's from better than anyone else, and understands how to make music that stresses that specificity without overlooking the universal themes of spirituality, the zealotry of the converted, and the myriad obstacles constantly capable of knocking you off your path. Halle Berry or hallelujah isn't always an obvious choice (although maybe it is –did you see that tweet about snacks?).
Like the familiar voice of a Five Boroughs deity, the booming trill of Kid Capri introduced him. This is the "new Kung Fu Kenny." Then came the garbled voice over, "Ain't Nobody Praying For Me." Next, a blast of smoke and Kendrick stalking out in an all-black Japanese Roshi costume rapping "DNA" like he was the scientist who cracked the code. He later changed into an all-white one. The crowd made noise like the earth being split by an asteroid.
There was a live band behind him, but you never saw them. If most rap bands descend into a toxic sludge of heaviness, Kendrick's unseen backing unit propelling him forward with heavy drums but minimal guitar shredding. They amplified the power of the record songs without smothering them in muddy riffs. He detonated into "Element" in double-time: "I be hangin' out at Tam's, I be on Stockton / I don't do it for the 'Gram, I do it for Compton."
Whether the words were heeded or not, the set was full of quietly radical gestures. If his most obsessive fans preach with evangelical fervor, Kendrick is artful in his ambiguity. He says enough to let you know exactly what he's talking about, but refuses to overtly condemn. Even if few from Compton could afford the absurd prices of a Coachella ticket, even if a lot of the audience was snapping mid-set, he stressed another path. He had a crowd who thinks Roots is a Canadian clothing chain rapping along to every word from "King Kunta."
What else? Diddy and Wiz Khalifa smoking blunts in the VIP, bugging out to "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe." Those visuals, toxic clouds of Piru red, images splintering, decomposing, re-emerging. "Backseat Freestyle" being rapped verbatim by nearly 100,000, set to images of Muhammad Ali pummeling a speedbag. Kendrick ascending in what was essentially a sparkling chandelier Houdini cage. Lyrical shout outs to E-40 and "25 Lighters." The West Coast coming alive, the spirit of Pac hovering over the Polo Grounds, nodding his head and maybe for a second, believing in the possibility that we will be alright.
Because the thing is, we might not be alright, and I suspect that Kendrick knows that too well. But he understands the point of the artist isn't only to chronicle the present and continue the rites of the past, but also to offer a tentative strain of hope for the future. He isn't always optimistic, but attempts positivity and that's ultimately what melts the ice in your blood and balances the bile in your spleen. The only time we saw the entire crowd was during the chorus of "Alright," as if to remind everyone that everything might seem bleak but at least you can celebrate these rare moments of communal beauty when you find them.
There was "Money Trees," still as haunting as a chalk outline. There was an interpretive dance with men wrapped in mournful black robes, Alvin Ailey in Compton, artful, tribal, elegant and suffused with menace. Every syllable and gyration coordinated with a different visual. He did what you're supposed to do in a live performance: align your career in perfect context, prioritizing the latest gem but letting everyone know that this is a continuum. He repeatedly shouted out the fans down from day one. There was a psychedelic Kabuki plus-size porn striptease. If he isn't already, he's going to be even bigger in Japan.
After leaving the stage briefly, Kendrick returned for a one-song encore. He selected "LOVE." a relatively straightforward ballad from the new album, presumably dedicated to his fiancé. But it might be about the near-impossibility of reconciling fidelity and lust, or potentially about his art and all-conquering competitive streak. He rapped, "Give me a run for my money/There is nobody, no one to outrun me."
For a brief minute or two, those words hung in the air like a mesmerizing spell, a challenge with plenty of takers but no serious contenders—at least for one night, at least for now.
Jeff Weiss is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.
Read all of Noisey's 2017 Coachella coverage here.