When’s the best time to see an artist? For Michael Jackson it was probably his epic 123 date 'Bad' tour in 1988. Plenty say David Bowie was never better than on his final world tour in 2003, while plenty of acts never top the initial adrenalin rush of their early shows. But for Kendrick Lamar, it’s probably right now. Three albums in (not including 2016’s ‘Untitled unmastered.’), the Compton rapper has a back catalogue of surefire bangers to rival artists with careers decades long and is in the enviable position of putting out zero dud music so far.
Largely holding off touring till now, the 30-year-old’s headline tour sold out almost instantly and not even the hour-plus wait to get into the cavernous 02 arena can dampen the spirits of those who’ve shelled out close to a hundred quid for the pleasure of being here tonight. Opening proceedings with a mock 70s Kung-Fu movie playing on the huge screen, introducing Kendrick as Kung-Fu Kenny, (the alter-ego he refers to himself as throughout the ‘Damn’ album), Kendrick appears alone on-stage, crouched towards the front, dressed in an all-black martial arts inspired ensemble.
Opening with ‘DNA’ and ‘Element’ from ‘Damn’, he works the sparse stage alone, before a masked performer in white comes to spar with his diminutive figure. With bizarre video footage showing a gruesome close-up of eye-surgery, plus footage of a human embryo playing behind him the early exchanges of the show have as much in common with a conceptual art piece as any hip hop show Mixmag has seen before.
But despite the pretentions to supposedly higher art forms, Kendrick never once delineates from being relentlessly entertaining. A lone figure on stage for most of the show (his band play out of sight to the right of the stage), the 5.5” rapper seems to grow in stature with every new song. By the time he addresses the audience after five songs with a coy ‘We agree to make this a special occasion right?’, he must even have the particularly grouchy 02 security eating out of the palm of his hands. Much of the music is given a beefed up rock treatment, something that can often leave hip hop feeling a little stodgy and bloated in the live arena. But here it works a treat, adding to the already stinging punch of Kendrick’s productions.
This technique works best on ‘Money Trees’, performed from a rising platform in the middle of the crowd, while his anonymous guitarist solos over the outro and practically every person in the arena shines the torch light form their phones. It’s a moment that suggests Kendrick would be equally adept at holding whole stadiums in the awe, as he is indoor arenas. A few tracks later he’s back on stage performing the sway worthy ‘Pride’ while suspended horizontally.
While so many hip hop live shows leave you with a feeling of getting shortchanged (late stage arrivals, too many guest-spots for the rappers enormous crew, tedious crowd interaction and bad PA systems come to mind here) Kendrick’s live show leaves you thinking you got every single penny of your money’s worth. His magnetic charisma alone shines throughout but it’s the sense that he’s putting every single ounce of his energy into the incredibly tight and focused performance that really raises the levels. When he flashes a wry smile and tells the crowd ‘that’s a whole lot of words to remember, you really do know your shit,” after the whole crowd raps most of ‘Humble’ back at him, you get the feeling that he is genuinely moved by the reaction in the room. That rarest of things, a humble rapper, you might say. Judging by tonight, Kendrick has far more reason than most to not be.
Check out the setlist below
Sean Griffiths is Mixmag's Deputy Editor and one of the most humble journalists of our generation, follow him on Twitter
DNA. ELEMENT.YAH. (Intro) into King Kunta
New Feeezer (Rich The Kid collab)
Collared Greens (ScHoolboy Q collab)
Swimming Pool (Drank)
Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe