The VMAs opened with Kendrick Lamar. For the first hour of the show, the literal flames in Kendrick’s performance were the only light in a sea of cringeworthy moments and secondhand embarrassment. Kendrick delivered. But was there any doubt that Kendrick would deliver? This is the guy who consistently gives performances that everyone talks about at work the next day. He’s the guy who stood on last year’s Grammys stage and presented a powerful, stirring message about mass incarceration and the black American experience.

Last night, Kendrick’s message was not overtly political. Today, the thing we’re all talking about after his medley of DNA and Humble is the ninja dancer who was on fire for an uncomfortably long time or those dancers who casually scaled a fiery wall. We’re making jokes about how LIT his performance was. Aside from the jokes, visually, it was extraordinary. It was such an epic display of Kendrick’s superior artistry that a lot of the performances that followed were laughable in comparison. It was a reminder that Kendrick deserves all of the things. Later in the night, Kendrick took home the thing he deserved most: the VMA for Video of The Year. This category has been controversial – to say the least – in the past. This category is responsible for the Taylor/ Kanye narrative that will never end and for all those “Imma let you finish” memes. Even though they’ve gotten it wrong before, MTV got it right this year. 

When I nerded out over the Humble video in March I noted that the song is more about bravado than it is about humility but in Kendrick’s two televised acceptance speeches (for Best Hip-Hop Video and Video of the Year), he humbly gave up his spotlight to his manager and long-time collaborator Dave Free and video director Dave Meyers. Part of me wanted at least one of Kendrick’s speeches to be the poetic political statement I know he is capable of. While a lot of celebs addressed the current f-cked up state of the world, a few did not have the capacity to relay their messages in a thoughtful, profound way. Some did it exceptionally well (Logic, Heather Heyer’s badass mom Susan Bro), others did not (Katy Perry) and some had the best intentions but were just a little awkward and out of their depths (Paris Jackson, Cardi B). Watching other artists try to use the platform of one of the biggest nights in music to communicate their views to their young, impressionable fans made me wish Kendrick had chosen this stage to say something meaningful. But that’s selfish of me. The excellence Kendrick displayed on that VMA stage should not be downplayed. That excellence IS meaningful. He was the most nominated artist of the night. He won six moon people (moon persons?). Kendrick Lamar is a kid from Compton who has become the greatest rapper of his generation. He performed DNA, a song that samples racist quotes from FOX News commentators. Kendrick’s existence last night was defiant. Right now, black excellence is radical. And why should Kendrick have to do the work? It’s unfair of me to want him to do anything but put on a dope performance and accept his awards with that adorable smile.

Kendrick may not have given a searing, politically-charged monologue but he was still inspiring. At one point, he thanked Dave Meyers for “allowing us to take our thoughts and our wild imagination to the next level.” Kendrick and Dave Free have been creating art together since they were 14. Two black boys with wild imaginations made it to the VMA stage. And, as Dave Meyers said, they did it by being “non-comformist.” Maybe that’s the exactly the message the next generation needs right now.

You can watch Kendrick’s full VMA performance below: