Whatever the archetype of a hip-hop star was before Kendrick Lamar feels painfully hollow in his presence by the end of 2015. In fact, even calling him a hip-hop star feels limiting. In the two years since the Compton rapper rocked the Observatory on New Year's Eve in a TDE beanie and backed by a lonely DJ, he's morphed into something that few emcees have the skill or the will to become: a true artist. Not only because he's one of the loudest barkers in the game right now, but because the message he brings has the most bite.
His rhymes make a habit of trading bravado for bravery, exposing his fault lines and turning down the swag factor by offering us his bleeding heart instead in the form of free verse poetry. What Drake has accomplished in album sales in 2015, Lamar has accomplished with making us believe in the power of hip-hop again (and, of course, those album sales ain't too shabby either). But he also succeeded in opening people's minds by spilling out his own onto the canvas of his latest album, the critically acclaimed To Pimp A Butterfly.
Last night Lamar made a triumphant return to the overstuffed interior of the Observatory as a wave of hands clasping cell phones poised their fingers on the record button, ready to make their friends green with jealousy. Not only was he performing cuts off his adventurous 2015 album with a ferocious backing band (the only way to hear TPAB live), it was also to be his last performance on the mini tour dubbed "Kunta's Groove Sessions" in support of the groundbreaking release. Great, now your friends REALLY hate you for being there.
Despite the raucous reception when he walked on stage, Lamar remained unflappable in the way he played to the crowd and played with them. Sporting a black fitted shirt, black jeans and lanes of tightly spun cornrows on his head, he solidly held his place at the lip of the stage. From the beginning of his performance, Lamar showed the ability to conduct the crowd as well as the band, conjuring the spirit of Gil Scott-Heron in his spoken word album interlude "For Free?" followed by "Wesley's Theory" getting his fans properly situated for his 90 minute-set by the time he hit the chorus for "Backseat Freestyle."
"Are there any females that feel like they need to get out the way?" he asked with his hands hovering toward the center of the floor which had already bloomed into an insane mosh pit.
Taking a full few minutes to clear the area of any potential trample victims, Lamar commenced rocking with the album's first radio hit "Swimming Pools (Drank)," diving deeper into the heart of his three-act set featuring almost all the tracks on TPAB.
Through it all, his backing band absolutely ripped, conjuring the chill, outer space R&B galaxies on "These Walls" or the unabashed headbanging segment following "Hood Politics," a monster track with P-funk coursing through its veins. Through every tempo change, bassist Tony "Chicago" Russell and guitarist Robert "Freaky Rob" Gueringer stayed locked on Lamar's tail with drums, keys and sax in toe, creating living, breathing soundscapes. They injected the tracks with future forward jazz of Herbie Hancock and the gully beats to supply the jazzy stomp to "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe," the serpentine killer jam "Money Trees" or the polemic lyrical imagery of ghetto anthem "m.A.A.d City."
The love from the crowd wasn't lost on Lamar as he spent a good portion of his set praising the crowd for holding him down since Day 1.
"I'll never forget about y'all…I seen 80,000, I seen 100,000 but nothing feels as good as being here where I can touch you mothafuckas," he said before giving daps to the entire front row.
While he definitely had the audience eating out of his palm for the whole set, by the time Lamar was ready to cap off Act 2 of his performance, things took a turn for the revolutionary. The soul of James Brown strained through his vocal chords, translating original funk for millennials as they collectively lost their shit when the on-the-one jungle groove of "King Kunta."
Perhaps taking a cue from LA fans the night before at the Wiltern, the crowd launched into the unprompted chant "We Gon' Be Alright!" as they showed love to the locally grown emcee who has thrived both artistically and personally enough to merge the two and have it all work out perfectly. Obviously this tour offers him the kind of creative latitude that was lacking in last weekend's performance at the Real Show, the inaugural concert for the newly branded Real 92.3 FM. But it's clear that when he wants to be, Lamar has the power to be a true voice of a generation on stage, armed with the material on TPAB. Lucky for us that voice is also a unique one. It offers hope to those steeped in today's modern civil rights struggle, held down by gunfire in neighborhoods drowning in a natural state of war and opens up the phrenology of a street kid to the world in a way most have never seen.
It took all night, but his encore performance of "Alright" gave hip-hop junkies hit of hope they were jonesing for, with outstretched hands in the air praying to what was once a reluctant messiah of hip-hop who now seems more comfortable claiming his throne. In that moment Lamar's stage presence was as comforting as it was magnetic–maybe something akin to watching Magic play with the Lakers in his prime. The dynasty he's built thus far will be remembered for transcending the boundaries of today's hip-hop in ways that our kids will be talking about. And as long as he continues creating, we gon' be alright.
See the full setlist on the next page
Swimming Pools (Drank)
Complexion (A Zulu Love)
Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe
Wanna Ryde Freestyle
How Much a Dollar Cost
The Blacker the Berry