NSO conductor previews Kendrick Lamar at Kennedy Center

July 24, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — The Kennedy Center is a hot ticket Tuesday night for a show that sold out in just minutes: Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar playing with the National Symphony Orchestra.

Lamar will rap his social commentary on stage with an orchestral accompaniment by the NSO Pops.

“It is pretty incredible,” NSO Pops conductor Steven Reineke tells WTOP. “This is going to be quite an adventure because you have two very, very different worlds colliding, from a full symphony classical orchestra, with the world of hip-hop. But it’s not something we’re totally unfamiliar with.”

That’s because Reineke also conducted the NSO Pops with rapper Nas last year.

“We basically recreated and reinvented his ‘Illmatic’ album,” Reineke says. “It was epic. It sounded like movie music in a way. It had this really epic scope to it. But when you’re talking in the modern vernacular poetry of current hip-hop and the types of sounds and samples and funk and R&B music that you hear in the background, then you add on top of that the horns and lush strings of a symphony orchestra, it’s a beast that takes on its own entity. There’s nothing like it in the world.”

Reineke says the idea for hip-hop collaborations was born several years ago.

“A few years ago I realized there’s one genre of music that’s very important in American culture that we have never worked with … and that is hip-hop. We were able to do that with Nas and now we’re continuing that with Kendrick Lamar … I feel like we have a stewardship to the great American songbook and to me that’s always being written. It’s not just Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. It’s guys of today who are writing and they have something important to say. A guy like Kendrick Lamar, the artistry is really high. This is just done at such an incredibly talented level. The message that Kendrick has, the things he talks about, the modern-day current issues are very valuable.”

WTOP’s Marcus Moore, who’s covering the show Tuesday night for Pitchfork, says the collaboration could bring a different demo into the Kennedy Center.

“It feels like it’s a victory for hip-hop culture as a whole,” Moore says. “Hip-hop for a long time has been considered this thing that’s been on the outside, and even the music that’s glorified on the radio today, is a little lower brow than I would like. So the fact you have this guy who’s actually talking about something … the fact that he’s resonating with so many people to the point where he can now perform at the Kennedy Center and it sells out in minutes, that’s amazing.”

July 24, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

“That certainly is part of the thought process to bring each other’s fans to each other in a way, but it’s really a much greater mission than that,” Reineke says. “With my job as a symphony Pops conductor, ‘Pops’ is just short for popular music. On the pops side of an orchestra, we’ll play everything from The Beatles to Beyoncé to Beethoven. We can do it all. We work in lots of different genres of music. One week, we’ll be doing John Williams film music. The next week, we’ll be doing a Broadway concert.”

Three days after the Lamar concert, the NSO Pops orchestra is working with Steve Martin’s bluegrass band. Reineke has also conducted collaborations with everyone from Ben Folds to Phish to John Legend, who joined the NSO Pops to recreate Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” album.

With all that star power, you might think Reineke retires his conductor’s wand as a souvenir each time he works with a celebrity guest. But that’s not the case.

“I’ve got one that I use that’s very special for me. So it’s like every concert I go through, the wand picks up more and a more mojo, more and more memories. I feel like they’re all stored in there.”

July 24, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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