There was always going to be a cloud over this year’s Grammy Awards, but no one could have predicted it would be one so dark. The elephant in the room was supposed to be the behind-the-scenes drama currently plaguing the Recording Academy. Instead, it was the Mamba.
Reports of Kobe Bryant’s death early yesterday sent much of the nation into a state of shock. Not long after the news broke, there were calls on social media to cancel the Grammys. To some, it seemed inappropriate to hold an event on Kobe’s home court, Los Angeles’s Staples Center. To others, it seemed inappropriate to hold any events at all. There were fears, too, that, considering the Recording Academy’s current turmoil and the lightning-quick turnaround it would require, the organization would be ill-equipped to respond to such a stupefying tragedy.
On their own, perhaps they would’ve been. The news was so surreal and unexpected, it was hard for anyone to summon a coherent—let alone, consoling—response. The Lakers organization itself was caught so speechless it didn’t release a press statement yesterday. And throughout much of the Grammys, artists’ attempts to pay tribute verged from awkward to touching—and sometimes were both at once. As the night’s host, Alicia Keys reverted to yoga instructor voice and tried her best to soothe the audience before she was joined by Boyz II Men for a short, somber performance of “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” Kobe’s jersey was thrown into Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” set as a background accessory. And the planned Nipsey Hussle tribute became a dual one, with giant pictures of both icons gracing the stage.
The most palpably affecting tribute, though, was the night’s first. Lizzo opened the show, dressed in a long, shimmering black dress, conducting her backing orchestra in the beginning notes to her 2019 single “Cuz I Love You.” After the band set the tone, without turning to face the audience, she bellowed an assured declaration: “Tonight is for Kobe!” Her face sank, her voice cracked, and she wailed the song’s first line: “I’m crying, cause I love youuu.”
It would’ve seemed that Lizzo’s brand of high-octane empowerment would be an ill-fitting remedy for the sadness that was plaguing the arena. Her forte is bright fireworks, not dark dirges. But she bent her song about unrequited love with a different sort of anguish—funereal rather than scorned—and it did what music does at its best. Her performance was a momentary exorcism of pain, achieving its goal through feverish submersion and then operatic power.
So it felt, at first, strange that she followed “Cuz I Love You” with an ebullient rendition of “Truth Hurts” that looked like a crossover between the movies Black Swan and Tron. And it’s stranger still that it worked, seamlessly. In the span of five minutes, Lizzo went from mourner to monster (the good kind). She got in a few notes on her flute. And for good measure, she added a triumphant exclamation: “Welcome to the Grammys, bitch!”
By the end of the night, Billie Eilish had racked up the most trophies, including defeating Lizzo in the Best New Artist category. But Lizzo gave the most dazzling performance, one that was not only emotional, but athletic, versatile, and utterly forceful. In other words, she gave us Kobe.
Chris Gayomali on growing up with a figure as complicated as Kobe and what he meant to Lakers fans.
Originally Appeared on GQ