In the fall of 2015, following the release of his critically-acclaimed, platinum-selling album To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar announced that he would bypass the round of huge, multi-city touring that would customarily follow such a successful project. While the decision to forgo a large stadium tour in the wake of Butterfly would have struck many as a misstep, the move was perfect.
Instead, Kendrick hit the road with a mini-tour, “Kunta’s Groove Sessions,” a quick and dirty, eight-city jaunt which found him pulling up on mid-sized theaters throughout the South and on both coasts. The purpose behind this choice was clear: To Pimp A Butterfly’s quirky, complex and jazz inflected hip hop songs required a level of intimacy and even physical proximity to the audience that would be difficult to reproduce in a 20,000 seat arena.
Much like Public Enemy’s Chuck D in the summer of 1988 or Jay-Z on 9/11, 2001, Kendrick Lamar had established himself as the pacesetter of the day. He was / is, the rapper with the loudest, most (culturally) resonant voice. In the months immediately following the reception of Butterfly, it was clear that in the minds of many that he was one of, if not the leading creative voice in mainstream hip-hop. A large part of his emergence as the mouthpiece of his generation has been his ability to relate his own personal fears, hopes and ambitions with those of his audience. Throughout his work, the notion of individual triumph and/or failure at the hands of forces larger than himself has remained a central component to his songs.
Often times, Kendrick can be found exploring this idea through the dichotomy of good and evil and all of it’s related ancillaries: war and peace, righteousness and excess, hate and love. Through his songs, Kendrick literally embodies these binaries and allows the tensions that they create to play themselves out in in an array of densely constructed stories and imaginative but relatable moments. From the gleeful witness (and participant?) of/in a series of gang-related murders (“m.A.A.D. City”), to the song “Institutionalized” which explores the emotional torment of an individual struggling hopelessly against systemic oppression. At one point, “Institutionalized” literally finds him pleading to these unseen forces “Master take the chains off me!!!” Like all of us, he is at times a victim and other times, a perpetrator and ultimately whether or not he triumphs depends on the choices he makes and what side of the fence those choices will ultimately lead him while his honesty and craftsmanship move us to empathize.
With the release of his latest album DAMN., Kendrick continues to offer up his struggles and contradictions for public consumption but in a far more direct, hard hitting fashion. On Butterfly, he laid out a dense set of songs that displayed a political nuance and deep musical sophistication whose influence continues to reverberate through the genre. DAMN is not that. In the spaces where Butterfly colored Kendrick’s war of light and darkness with jazz improvisation and nods to Los Angeles’ experimental “beat” scene, DAMN relies on bass heavy, Southern trap beats and anthemic choruses to get the message across. In short, DAMN finds Kendrick arming himself with big, powerful songs befitting of the rap superstar that he became once Butterfly was released; the album even features a guest appearance from archetypical stadium rockers U2. Add all of that to two years of solidifying his live chops and it is no surprise that Kendrick decided to take these songs out on the road for an elaborate stadium tour.
Walking down into the steep seating of the Wells Fargo center, it would be dramatic to say that the scene brought to mind Dante Alighieri’s descent into the 7th circle of hell…but I’m not saying that’s not what it felt like. Houston rapper/producer and DAMN tour opener Travis Scott was performing. High above the crowd, Scott performed most of his set while riding on top of a giant metallic bird with glowing eyes, surrounded by fire and pyrotechnics. His dark, near-gothic Trap tunes seduced the crowd of young hypebeasts, scene kids and turnt up escapees from suburbs of southern Jersey. This kind of spectacle is the opposite of where rap started, but it is where the genre is now.
After a brief intermission, Kendrick emerged on stage, kneeling in a wash of artificial, white light. Immediately, he launched into “DNA”, the crowd singing along fervently “I got…I got…I got…I got…I got…loyalty, I got royalty inside my DNA, cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace inside my DNA, I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA….” After a manic stop-start rendition of “King Kunta,” it was“Untitled 02” one of the more menacing and abstract song’s in Lamar’s catalog. Last night, he stripped it of it’s claustrophobic and paranoid air, relying heavily on the song’s unforgettable chorus. Kendrick screams “Get God on the phone!!!” and the entire building sang along, regardless of whether or not we know exactly what he meant.
Throughout his set, radio hits like “Swimming Pools” and “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” were brought to scale and exploited for all of their familiarity and Kendrick’s unique penchant for making his personal shortcomings relatable. By the time he landed at the pre-chorus for “Bitch….” he had the audience not eating out of his hand as much we are seeing ourselves in his struggle. “I am a sinner, who’s probably gonna sin again. Lord forgive me. Lord forgive me for things I don’t understand…”
For the delicate guitar ballad “Pride” he pulled back the energy a bit, kneeling at the stage commanding the audience to form into a sea of waving hands and cell phone lights. The tension and contradictions in the song were made clear as Kendrick vacillated between the love that inspires his gift of voicing these very human ideals and the fear that binds him up. “I don’t love people enough to place my faith in men. I put my faith in these lyrics hoping I make amends… I understand I ain’t perfect.” Then, he did what any rock star would do: assuring the crowd that the connection was real.
“I swear to God, as long as I live and get to tell my story, I’m going to tell YOUR story. Each and every one of you!” And for a moment, I believed it, despite the spectacle and grandiosity of it all.
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