Kendrick Lamar and Imagine Dragons promised that their Grammy show would channel "The Hunger Games," but they came through like a postapocalyptic hazmat team blitzing the stage after Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' dominance of the rap awards.
Against a backdrop swarming with '80s-style white ice and smoke-machine effects, the Compton-raised rapper and the Las Vegas-based alternative rock unit ran through a mashed-up rendition of their respective songs "m.A.A.d. city" and "Radioactive." Their crisp ice-white outfits were lit by a light show that flashed between searing white and blazing red beams, casting Kendrick and his new rock pals as renegade outsiders to an audience dolled up in tuxes and gowns.
The collaboration didn't lack for intensity. Kendrick screwed up his face and channeled his energy onstage to the point where he resembled some sort of hyper rap goblin, while Dan Reynolds' troupe bopped heads in rhythmic unison as they laid down an abrasive backing groove. To this, a few members of the crowd — including Jay Z and Lorde — self-consciously bopped along.
But while "m.A.A.d. city"/"Radioactive" won for the night's most amped-up and artistically intense performance, it also underscored Kendrick's position as rap's golden boy, who might not prosper in the mainstream spotlight with the same ease as previous hip-hop superstars.
Kendrick broke through with his good kid, m.A.A.d. city album at the tail end of 2012. His most acclaimed music comes when he writes with a mature nuance and eye for off-kilter details. At best, his songs aren't exactly the sort of ditties that rely on catchy hooks you'll hear seeping out of the speakers at the supermarket — or local thrift store.
So while Kendrick was nominated for seven awards this year, he saw the openly pop-leaning Macklemore and Ryan Lewis scoop most of the rap-related ones.
There's no beef between the two acts, however. Before the Grammys, they shared details of bro-styled texts they'd sent each other in congratulations of their rises last year. But for now, Kendrick might have to settle for being the widely lauded hip-hop wunderkind who doesn't yet have a golden sippy cup proudly displayed in his bathroom.