Hip-Hop is Taking Over Late Night TV & Making Music History

From J. Cole to Kendrick, a new generation of rappers are turning late night shows into career-defining moments.
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J. Cole appearing on David Letterman was nothing out of the ordinary, performing on late night television has always been a marketing strategy during an album campaign.

Usually the artist will perform their most popular single, hoping their fans and whoever else is still awake and viewing will feel inspired to spend a few bills on the album, maybe they’d even pick up a handful of new fans. Cole had a massive following at the time, I’m certain many of them were glued to the television, but Jermaine didn’t bring a record that was radio ready. Instead, what the viewers witnessed was a powerful performance of the heartfelt “Be Free,” a song J. Cole released in honor of Mike Brown and the many other black men and women who have lost their lives unjustly by the hands of law enforcement. If you saw it live, it’s very likely that your jaw was ajar, that chills were running down your arms and a sense of pride was swelling in your chest. On that stage, that night, he didn’t promote an album, he brought a message, one that came from the depth of his soul, one that could touch the souls of any that witnessed the display of compassion. Five years ago that moment would’ve disappeared after commercial break, before TiVo and OnDemand, before every performance was uploaded to YouTube, a live performance with so much meaning would only live on in the memories of those that saw it. A potential monumental moment of his career would be smaller than the fine print on a Cash Money contract.

Lucky for us, we have progressed beyond that age of darkness, before the live applause could even die down the video was traveling across the internet like a Frank Ocean album link. The amount of praise and press he received was immense, much larger than the average live performance. It was the talk of the internet, a testament to how the internet allows something like television performances a second life when they would normally be buried soon after airing. For years television companies refused to conform to the times, they saw the internet as a leech, not a potential benefit, programs continued to air and disappear without any intention of being uploaded to the World Wide Web. You couldn’t afford to miss your favorite performer on 106 & Park or Saturday Night Live. If you weren’t watching, you risked never seeing it. It all came down to ratings, they wanted eyes on the television like it was the Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964. They fought streaming their broadcasts online harder than labels fought streaming their music.   

But now that a new crop of younger, internet savvier late night hosts - Kimmel, Fallon, Colbert - have supplanted the old guard and the networks have finally succumbed to the realities of the digital age, we are starting to witness a change in the artist mentality as well. The forward thinkers are approaching the late night television stage with much more precision, an understanding that their performance will live on long after the cameras go dim. The stage now goes beyond the TV watchers, anyone with a cellphone, tablet or laptop is able to watch days, months, maybe years later. They have to give the blogs something worthy to post, give the people something worthy to share, the right performance could end up being more like a free music video than a one-time performance.  

Kendrick is another great example of approaching the stage in memorable way. I remember being astounded by his Saturday Night Live performance of “i.” It’s the kind of performance that changed my entire outlook on the song. I was a bit iffy when it was originally released but seeing him perform with such eccentric energy and passion, I couldn’t stop watching. I can’t imagine just seeing it once or missing it completely. This was an important moment for Kendrick, the first time he performed with a live band and background singers, a very tiny glimpse at what he would be doing in the future. To see that performance was to become aware that this wasn’t the same rapper from GKMC.

Every time since then, Kendrick has brought something new to the late night stage. To skip a Kendrick performance, televised or online, was like ignoring a new song release. For the SNL performance, he added the final verse from “Momma” to the end of “i”, at the time we didn’t know that but it gave the performance an added enthralling intensity that isn’t on the original. Also adding a new verse made people have to watch to hear what was included. J. Cole did the same with “Be Free,” his performance has an added verse, one that I immediately wished was included on the song when it was gifted to us.

Kendrick took it up a notch by performing a never before heard song on Colbert Report. For weeks I watched fans tweet Kendrick basically begging for the record. When TPAB was released, one of the initially reactions was whines that the song from Colbert didn’t make the album. He gave us 16 songs and there was an uproar about one that he performed live. When he returned to Colbert’s new late show a few weeks ago, Kendrick didn’t bring something new, he just made the old more refreshing. He performed a medley of TPAB records, once again utilizing his showmanship and background singers and band players to make a performance that only he can make happen. Dot isn’t missing a single opportunity to attract our attention, every move is one that must be watched. To hear that he’s performing doesn’t mean running to the TV, but rather waiting for the link online.

Kendrick may be the current king of late night performances, but the first time I really became aware of the power that late night television held for an artist was Odd Future’s television debut, the time they appeared on Jimmy Fallon. My Twitter timeline was full of tweets about this guy, Tyler The Creator, someone worth watching. To this day it reigns as the most bizarre live television performance I’ve ever witnessed. Tyler and Hodgy perform like punk rockers that forgot to take their Ritalin. From the lyrics to Tyler running off stage, it was impossible to look away. It was a defining moment that showcased their image of lacking fucks and untameable energy, they scared adults and had every teenager in school screaming “Wolf Gang.” Plus, watching Tyler jump on Jimmy’s back and hearing Mos Def yell “Swag” like a deranged cool uncle was worth replaying it again and again, a repetition that was only possible because of glorious work of some blessed uploaders. In retrospect, it was one of the first times we saw the digital potential of a televised performance for new acts.

Before becoming more elusive than Omar in the final season of The Wire, Frank Ocean was Odd Future’s soaring phoenix, and he also used his television debut in a very big way. Much like J. Cole, he didn’t go on Jimmy Fallon to perform a single, he went with a song that had meaning, a song that would touch you beyond the surface. It was the first time the world heard “Bad Religion,” a song about the struggles of unrequited love with another man. This was during a time where rumors were starting to spread about his sexuality, early reviews of his album spilled a very big secret of his. He addressed those rumors on that stage, with an orchestra behind him. Before people could even properly digest the album, it was announced that his debut album, “Channel Orange,” was available on iTunes, along with a confessional letter that went in-depth about the mysterious lover mentioned on the song. It was a huge night, the internet was afire, the performance, letter, and album made it a very long evening for all. And just a few years earlier it would have faded into the fog of television memory.

Not every television performance will be one to remember, there’s been plenty of Super Bowl half-time-shows that weren’t able to amass the chatter of a Beyonce or Janet Jackson performance. They may live on the internet but are rarely acknowledged. Award shows are the same, artists might kill it on the stage but will have a hard time outliving the various tweets and memes that are flooding social media. Sadly, some companies fail to upload the footage in its highest quality. I wish Kendrick’s “Alright” performance at the B.E.T awards was properly uploaded and could be truly watched and shared. He literally rapped on top of a police car with the American flag waving in the background. It’s a powerful enough image to pass as a music video, not to mention the cypher-esque freestyle. By contrast, what allows the late night television stage to be so impactful, only one artist is in the spotlight. They aren’t competing with football history or the award show chatter, this is their moment. Over the last year and change we’ve seen more and more artists using the late night platform to create those defining moments.

Kendrick and Cole have raised the bar by using after dark television to make music history, who’s next to jump over?

[By Yoh, aka Jimmy Yohlon, aka @Yoh31]

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