The greatest plays the old school set he wants, from hits to guest verses, with no one to answer to
Kendrick Lamar was already being called the greatest rapper alive when he played Primavera last, almost a decade ago. He was a few mixtapes and two albums into his career, but it was his second album, 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, that had marked his true arrival, with an instantly legendary verse on Big Sean’s ‘Control’ stirring the pot.
In 2014 he snatched the headline set away from the billed headliners, performing with a band who wore FC Barcelona away shirts, Lamar in blue jeans, plaid shirt and cap – an understated setup and look for a guy who was casually operating on another level, even then.
In that sense, Lamar hasn’t changed in the intervening 9 years: there’s been a mountain of awards (including a Pulitzer – the first ever for a non-jazz, non-classical musician) and all the tinsel of worldwide stardom, but on a live level, while he now has the budgets to match his creativity, his almost supernatural gift to walk onto a stage and rap like the rest of us breathe has been constant.
Last year I saw him on his Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers tour, at the O2 in London. I left convinced I’d just seen the greatest show of my life. When friends asked me what made it so good I did a bad job of articulating it, but started to summarise it by saying how its theatrical elements (the runway the length of the venue, the 20 modern dancers, the narration by Helen Mirren, Lamar’s puppet of himself, the world of the thing) pushed it somewhere else, but essentially even if he’d rapped those songs alone on a blank stage, the way only he does, it would have still been better than I can fully explain.
I don’t know who told Kendrick about this, but tonight he gave me the opportunity to test that theory, performing not a stripped down version of the Mr. Morale tour, not a plugin variation of his Glastonbury 2022 set, but something more like an old school hip-hop PA with a few classy (but minimal) production flourishes, and the complete assurance of a man who doesn’t need help from anyone.
He spends most of the night (and the first 6 songs straight) completely alone – no live band, no DJ, no hype man firing airhorns etc. A beautifully painted backdrop of two Black figures unfurls from the rafters (the first of a three tableaus, which fans are no doubt decoding as you read this – this being Lamar, they will, after all, mean something) and ‘N95’ sounds the start of a show featuring the hits of course, but more obscurities than headlining festival sets usually allow for. Saying that, in the pocket of the crowd where I am everyone knows every bar of the opening 20 minutes at least, which includes ‘ELEMENT’ and party moment highlight ‘King Kunta’, but also ‘A.D.H.D.’ from debut album Section.80 and Lamar’s contribution to Pusha T’s ‘Nosetalgia’. Later he gives us his verse from The Weeknd’s ‘Sidewalks’ too, suggesting that when he reached for his verses from ‘Control’ and ASAP Rocky’s ‘F**kin’ Problems’ here in 2014 perhaps it wasn’t out of necessity after all.
At times it’s hard to know what to do with yourself. We bounce, and act as the response to Lamar’s call when he drops off the mic for us to play our part (a lightning quick one-two rather than anything resembling “when I say hip, you say hop”), and practically slow dance to ‘LOYALTY’, but then you suddenly realise you’re stood still doing nothing but watching, trying to figure out a.) what is it about Lamar’s style that is so much sharper than Pusha T’s, say, who performed last night, and not like this, falling into practically all of the trappings of what a cliché rap show usually is, b.) are we sure there’s not a live band under the stage or somewhere, because it sounds like there is, and c.) is he really going to do this whole thing alone.
He doesn’t in the end. A maximum of 5 male dancers in dark denim aprons come and go from a predictably raucous ‘Backseat Freestyle’ (although they’re never on stage long), and cousin Baby Keem comes out on the penultimate two tracks – Keem’s own ‘Vent’ and ‘Family Ties’, the latter receiving almost as big a reception as ‘HUMBLE’, the show’s crowning, hard three minutes.
As a fan of Mr. Morale, I’m as mesmerised by ‘Rich Spirit’ and ‘Die Hard’ as I am pumped for ‘ALRIGHT’, but I’m definitely in the minority there. With the exception of ‘Count Me Out’, and ‘N95’ for starting things off, it’s the new album tracks that receive the more muted response from the crowd, especially as the show reaches its end. Lamar never loses faith, of course, controlling the pace of the 90 minutes with periods between songs where he simply stands silently on the stage for 20 odd seconds. You hardly ever see rappers do that – refuse to chase the momentum as if a second without sound or hype would kill things dead. Kendrick Lamar is not an average rapper though, and as boring as that’s becoming to hear and even say, it definitely isn’t to see.
Nosetalgia verse [Pusha T]
Swimming Pools (Drank)
Sidewalks verse [The Weeknd]
Count Me Out
Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe
Vent [with Baby Keem]
Family Ties [with Baby Keem]
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