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Kendrick Lamar – The DAMN. Tour Review

February 19, 2018 | Posted by David Hayter
Kendrick Lamar
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Kendrick Lamar – The DAMN. Tour Review  

Tonight’s performance, the second sold out date at London’s O2 Arena, should serve as a victory lap for Kendrick Lamar. The Compton kingpin sits unchallenged atop the rap game’s throne. Even when he throws transparent shots at his peers, few are willing to return fire. In this light, the final stop on the UK leg of the DAMN. tour is a defacto celebration of an album that might not be the rapper’s best, but one that captures Kung Fu Kenny at his most dynamic and self-assured. His very own walk on water moment, that made no concessions to the mainstream and was a smash hit all the same.

Nevertheless, while Kendrick Lamar may well be peerless on record, he still has major questions to answer in the live arena. Can his syllable heavy, hook light onslaught of intellect really thrill 20,000 strong crowds raised on laser shows and deafening sing-alongs?

This is more than just an issue of content vs. canvas, while Kendrick has been immune to criticism on record, he has had his fair share of bad live reviews. Noisey famously argued it’s not worth going to see the best rapper in the world mumble through his verses over muddied beats ruined by awkward acoustics. But could it really be as bad as all that?

Seemingly aware that this is his transcendent moment, Kendrick has a sculpted a stage show that blends grandiose self-indulgence with the kind of severe, artistic insularity that defines his in studio work. In other words, K-dot is having his cake and eating it too: miraculously satisfying those fans who came to see a spectacular show of hubristic excess and the hip hop obsessives who want to hear the voice of a generation spitting mercilessly complex bars, representing the best of black culture without bending a knee or conceding an inch.

Breaking immediately with To Pimp A Butterfly’s austere aesthetic, as the lights dim and the crowd roar, the big screens are filled with a 70s Kung Fu/Blaxploitation movie spoof, that sees King Kenny learning turtle style from his sensei as he goes in search of the glow. It’s funny, charming and a reminder that when Kendrick isn’t killing rapper’s dead or dropping knowledge, he does like to cut loose and have a little fun. The video intermissions continue throughout the night (getting progressively more preposterous with time) – but they are only fleetingly linked to on stage performance. Sure there is some modern dance and even a ninja, but aside from some monk like robes, Kendrick Lamar stands unadorned on an empty stage as he faces his audience.

Rising from a reflective knee, Kendrick sees fit to tear the O2 to shreds by unleashing the incendiary “DNA”: an opener so big and so raw, it’s hard to imagine any arena straddling artist topping it. The crowd surges and seethes on both sides of the barricade (sadly this is a segregated, corporate feeling,  highly priced gig). Despite the band/DJ being hidden from view, the track absolutely bangs, proving far more venomous (and, frankly, deafening) than its studio counterpart. Each of Kendrick’s most bitter barbs is accompanied by giant pillars of flame at the back of the stage (he might be a man alone, but he’s learnt from Kanye’s anti-showmanship in the live arena).

The pace doesn’t slacken. The tranquil arrangement of “Element” is transformed into a stark exercise in juxtaposition, the verses are clear and crisp (especially the Juvenile influenced final flurry) while the chorus provides a hilarious sing-along. The wonderful walking funk of “King Kunta” stampedes across the arena: the airy rhythmic delicacy of the studio version is jettisoned in favor of a bombastic onslaught that forces even the most reluctant audience member to dance like their life depends upon it. The revelations keep coming as “Untitled 07” ping-pongs around this cavernous hanger, contorting a famously anonymous corporate space into an oppressively paranoid delusion born of haunted Compton youth.

Having stuck rigidly to the DAMN Tour setlist up until this point, Kendrick throws a curveball, trading “New Freezer” for Travis Scott’s “Goosebumps”. It doesn’t quite work live, but it’s hard to quibble with a rarity. Truthfully, whatever that guest feature may have lacked in raw oomph, Kendrick’s “Collard Greens” verse possesses it in spades

One of the greatest opening runs imaginable is topped off with two tracks for his “day ones”. Unfortunately, Kendrick plays nothing from Section.80, instead reframing his origin point as good kid, m.A.A.d city, with “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “Backseat Freestyle” inciting visceral roars of approval. The former is a little stilted live, but its simple sing-along chorus and slow verse allow the crowd to keep pace a sing as one.

From this point onwards the DAMN. tour truly begins. This is a Kung Fu Kenny show after all and he’s here to showcase new material. Taking to a beautifully framed second stage in the center of the arena, Kendrick slows things down with “LUST”: a composition too alien and starkly sliced to thrill, but one of the more daring and disorientating pieces to ever be played to a 20,000 strong crowd. For sticking with the star as he delved into the darker reaches of his soul, Kendrick rewards the crowd with a tried and true classic, “Money Trees” (another track that manages to find a depth of energy and immediacy that could not be fathomed from its studio cousin).

Kendrick can no longer fail. The goofy video segments are endearing (earning genuine laughs) and it’s clear that this crowd is as happy to hear material new and old. “XXX” is wild, a mind melting blend of ear splitting sirens and raw vocal violence. Kenny is occasionally lost in the mix as his rhymes get knottier, but his energy is undeniably infectious and his audience are kept off balance by unexpected sonic booms of the beat.

The sold out crowd simply go with the flow, leaping skyward as they scream “Yawk! Yawk! Yawk!” one moment and relaxing their minds and floating down stream as Kendrick coos, “maybe I wasn’t there”, the next. There are hiccups, “LOVE” is perhaps a meandering bridge too far, it’s drift is delicious, but it’s basic boom-bap undercurrents fail to command attention.

Still, if there are wobbles, no one really notices. When Kendrick turns to address the audience, he’s met by torrential applause. He tries to speak, he tries to start a song, but he’s powerless, the London crowd won’t stop screaming, stomping, clapping and chanting his name. The wave of adulation refuses to crest. Just as it threatens to recede a gruffer, throatier cry erupts. The King Of The Rap game appears genuinely humbled. He must be used to satisfied audiences by now, but the spontaneous intensity of this ovation forces a crack in his poker face. (Honestly, I’ve seen a selection of better performances and I’ve witness acts hitting the peak of their fame, but I’ve never seen an arena show an artist this level of respect and adoration.)

Kendrick’s job is done. All that’s remains is to send the crowd home happy: an effortless “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and an explosive rendition of “Alright” do just that. “HUMBLE” is a victory lap, he allows the crowd to rap the key lines and encourages a deafening shout-along where The O2 growls “sit down”, “be humble” completely acapella at Kendrick’s command (surreally echoing the Nuremberg rally or Kanye West performing “Clique”). Kendrick reloads the track (complete with the beat this time) to close the show.

“GOD”, Kendrick’s favorite cut from DAMN., serves as the sole encore. It’s an appropriate choice, not a banger, but a blissed out moment of introspection – a chance for Kendrick to revel in his own staggering achievements while the audience catch their breathe and marvel at the enormity of the performance.

Kung Fu Kenny already had the rap game on lock, but with this tour it’s clear that he’s coming for the live throne. Jay-Z and Kanye West better keep their head on a swivel, but, truthfully, everyone from U2 and Metallica to Daft Punk and Lorde have reason to fear Compton’s finest.

The final score: review Amazing
The 411
The spontaneous, frenzied and seemingly unending roar of approval that greets Kendrick Lamar when he (eventually) pauses for breath, speaks to the quality of his performance. The real shock of The DAMN. Tour comes from hearing these complex and often delicate productions turned into visceral arena wrecking machines without sacrificing either artistry or IQ points. An absolute triumph.

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Kendrick Lamar, David Hayter