Kendrick Lamar’s ‘The Pop Out — Ken & Friends’ Show Defined California Love

California knows how to party. Kendrick Lamar’s Juneteenth concert, The Pop Out: Ken & Friends, proved as much this week while living up to its name and bringing a range of street-certified artists from across the Los Angeles area together in a one-of-a-kind performance reminiscent of culture-defining shows like Fresh Fest, the Hard Knock Life Tour, or Jay-Z’s I Declare War show.

Kendrick himself called the show an example of “unity at its finest,” highlighting what to outsiders might appear to be an unusual and even ill-advised collection of affiliations, considering the city’s history of internecine gangland conflict. Just under three years ago, the Once Upon A Time In Los Angeles festival was marred by an attack on South Central rapper Drakeo The Ruler — an attack that turned out to be fatal, costing the city its third icon in as many years after the deaths of Nipsey Hussle and Kobe Bryant in 2019 and 2020.

So to collect so many of LA’s Blood and Crip-affiliated artists not only onto one show bill but onto the same stage was a victory for unity, regardless of the simmering spitefulness that ran through much of the headliner’s setlist.

It helps to have a common enemy, though.

While almost none of the artists on stage as Kendrick Lamar performed the Drake diss song “Not Like Us” five times in a row have ever even had dealings with the Canadian superstar, it was hard not to get caught up in the infectious energy permeating the Kia Forum. The song is a phenomenon, a viral tornado that has swept through real life gatherings as surely as it has social media. In its way, it’s also a callback to a simpler time, before TikTok dances and AI-powered algorithms determined the popularity of singles custom-designed to game search engines and recommendations pages.

That it’s a combative, defamatory anthem makes its popularity so unique; there is a call-and-response hook, but it revolves around dragging down a rival to the artist himself. Every quotable is damn near a libel litigator’s wet dream. It’s not exactly “standing on couches and crooning to the roof” music. Maybe that’s why it was such a perfect song to bring together a city so well-known for warfare. “California Love” is a thing, but the unspoken context is LA loves a hater.

Or maybe we just understand them. Look at the icons that this town has deified. Kobe Bryant’s defining characteristic was a near-sociopathic commitment to competition — one that his staunchest supporters inherited (Temecula, anyone?). Eazy-E? Rose to stardom on the wave of a song dedicated to his hatred of law enforcement. His former bandmate, Ice Cube, broke away from NWA with a vicious diss track of his own, “No Vaseline.” Tupac Shakur, arguably the West Coast’s messiah figure, is still the face and gold standard of rap beef thanks to his treatment of friend-turned-rival The Notorious B.I.G.

Kendrick’s show, as much as it shone a spotlight on LA’s flourishing well of talent, past, present, and future, was a testament to LA’s legacy of contrarianism, of contradiction. The city itself is often positioned as a counterpoint to New York, America’s “First City.” A trip downtown underlines its original architects’ intentions to make it the New York of the West. But everything around it, as the city grasps toward the ocean, the mountains, the desert surrounding it, displays its rejection of this characterization.

Ken & Friends was a rejection of external definitions. A declaration of LA’s own identity. But more than anything, it was a party, the likes of which you can only throw on the West Coast.