Kendrick Lamar stands at an exciting and tenuous point in his rising career, with a critically acclaimed mixtape right behind him and his major label debut, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. city, just a month away. The few leaks that have surfaced sound promising, and judging from the audience's reactions at Epic on Friday, excitement for the follow-up to Section.80 is strong.
Local openers Audio Perm started off what was otherwise a Top Dawg Entertainment showcase, featuring Kendrick's crew and labelmates Ab-Soul and Jay Rock, in addition to MMG's Stalley. Audio Perm's young gun energy fit the vibe with Kendrick's sound, rocking a politically-minded approach to a contemporary hip-hop vibe, and having opened for T.D.E. in the past helped the set fit with the rest of the pre-packaged tour. Rick Ross protege Stalley was another fitting choice to play alongside T.D.E. members, as he similarly tweaks formulas of mainstream rap tropes to create an original style of his own.
Titles like "Midnight Satori" and "Petrin Hill Peonies" imply a different sort of song than many buzz rappers provide, but the bass-heavy beats and straight-ahead flow kept the set from bleeding too far out of the frame of booming club rap. This was the common factor between all the artists present, and was also the show's strength overall: The crowd clearly wanted, and received, an energetic club show, but the material pushed the envelope enough beyond the norm as to make it a more engaging experience.
Next up was Jay Rock, who said he was no stranger to Minnesota. His set started at about midnight, making me worried about the show's run time pushing past 2, but everything ran smoothly as the T.D.E. rappers did what amounted to back-to-back performances. Accented by hard beats and a classic West Coast flow, Jay's set started to amp the crowd and prepare them for what was to come. Up next was the more abstract Ab-Soul, whose frame-bending style and penchant for conspiracy theories help make him one of the more interesting rappers going now.
In an era where most rappers seem to get by without actually saying much, Ab-Soul will grab your attention line for line by mixing paranoid radicalism, cryptic symbology, and good old-fashioned brash egotism into each of his tracks. The beats stayed huge and got the crowd notably amped, and towards the end of his set, the place had a frenzy of arms flailing and cheers. His energy was notable and swept through the crowd. His tribute to the passing of collaborating vocalist Alori Joh was touching, and his request for lighters in the air ("I know ya'll smoke, take your lighters out") made for a powerful visual vigil; in a fitting turnaround, Ab-Soul went on to say, "She told me so, so I'ma say it: I'm the best rapper ever."
As this was sponsored by BET, a quick commercial for the channel had to come on in between Ab's set and Kendrick's, replaying cyphers from past BET Awards. The energy in the room came down a bit so that everyone could watch TV for a moment, but Kendrick's arrival brought it all back up again. The opening to "HiiiPower" played before he arrived ("Everybody put three fingers in the air"), and everyone's raised hand began to bounce as the headliner hopped on stage. He moved swiftly through some of the highlights from Section.80, with some of his older tracks dispersed in between for variety. Newer tracks closed out the set as a way to build anticipation for the upcoming album, which Lamar referred to as "Section.80 on steroids".. Kendrick didn't move around excessively, and his stage presence relied often on crowd response, which was consistently turned up. Most people knew all his words, and Kendrick would often stop songs in order to let the crowd participate. While it did bring the room to a profound peak at times, it drew some of the energy away from his actual performance, which I was hoping would be a little more dynamic.
Still, he certainly had a way of amping and controlling a crowd, and new single "Swimming Pools (Drank)" especially worked in the chaotic club setting. His flows are incredibly inventive and watching him belt them out loud brought new life to his music. The song "Rigamortus" was unfortunately cut short, as it would've been a great example of the rapper's clear ability with spitfire mechanics, but as he rapped "I Am" accapella even as a uninterrupted brawl broke out in the balcony VIP section, he proved he could demand attention with his rap skills alone even with a distracted audience. Kendrick's songs are teaming with excellent songwriting, beats, engaging flows and powerful narratives, all of which made for a great show and an excited audience, but at times he leaned too much on the crowd's love to really show out at his best. Overall, however, this was a memorable performance and an incredibly fun night all told.
Critic's Bias: I thought Section.80 was one of the best releases last year, and knew most of the songs really well.
The Crowd: Very diverse, more energy than is typically at Epic shows, a lot of the local hip-hop community in the audience.
Random notebook dump: Kendrick called the show more than a concert; "this was a movie." I was sort of hoping for a concert, though.
Overheard in the Crowd: A bug-eyed male blatantly ogling and pointing at a women's butt. Discretion, people.
Fuck Your Ethnicity
Look Out For Detox
The Spiteful Chant
Ronald Reagan Era
Swimming Pools (Drank)
I Am (accapella)