If Kendrick Lamar had stood motionless center stage with the house lights up and rapped his 90-minute set a cappella Saturday night, the sold-out Xcel crowd would still have clung to every syllable.
OK, maybe not, but the 30-year-old Compton superstar has a talent for making hyperbole credible. Argumentative hip-hop heads may bristle when music blogs glibly anoint him “greatest rapper alive,” but to be in his presence is to understand why the title’s his to lose. There was no questioning Kendrick’s quiet authority as he commanded a mostly bare stage with little more than the acrobatic intricacy of his rhymes, the lithe cadence of his delivery, and the intense charisma of his physical presence. It was a beautiful thing.
Kendrick’s appearance was preceded by the first of a series of “Kung Fu Kenny” cartoons, which, over the course of the night, would show the MC’s animated avatar developing his “turtle style,” vanquishing a foe in a video-game-style battle, and, at last, lustily eying a gleaming ball of light that issued from between the legs of a sumptuously Afro’d lover and recalling his sensei’s maxim: “Where the black is darkest, the glow will shine brightest.” (For all his brilliance, Kendrick has a weakness for reducing women to convenient metaphors – his nemesis throughout his 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly was a demonic temptress named Lucy – but at least the glorious revelation of the golden pussy was good-humored.)
An explosion augured the star’s arrival, and he rose up through an empty stage, in yellow pants and black hoodie, to rip into two tracks from his latest album, the stripped-down Damn.. A ninja whirled around him with spry menace during “DNA,” joined by a female dancer as Kendrick proceeded straight into “Element,” their choreography owing more to modern dance than hip-hop. Then both figures vanished, leaving Kendrick alone, as he would mostly be throughout the night. (A band was couched in a barely visible nook beneath the stage, off to the side, though he seemed mostly to rap along to prerecorded tracks.)
The emptiness around Kendrick, like the repeated onscreen display of the lyric “Ain’t nobody praying for me,” may have suggested isolation. But any suggestion that the night would belong to any of the darker roles he’s adopted (the brooding Kendrick who uneasily shoulders the burdens of his people, the conflicted Kendrick who pitilessly questions his own motives in his rhymes) was dispelled when he introduced himself: “I go by the name of Kung Fu Motherfucking Kenny.” Trauma and fear and anxiety and self-recrimination would surface in his rhymes throughout the night, but with his nimble flow Kendrick would playfully and handily fend off these threatening forces.
As will happen in big rooms, some of the subtlety of those rhymes was dulled, so “Swimming Pools (Drank)” felt more like a party shoutalong than a dramatic struggle against hedonism. But this was no big thing, because for all the lyrical nuance that critics justifiably praise – the narrative ingenuity, the willingness to grapple with his own character flaws and the legacy of racism that’s shaped African-American culture – what sets Kendrick apart is a voice. It’s boyish but not callow, nasal but not shrill, with consistently more resonance than you’d expect from an upwardly pitched instrument with those characteristics. His magnetism wasn’t just rooted in what he said, but in how he said it.
And in how he moved. His body translated the passion of his rhymes into a controlled but vigorous range of motions, his go-to show of footwork was a distinctive stutter step, and when he collapsed into a crouched ball or simply stood still, his pent up physicality generated anticipation. Some of his most exciting moments were the least frenetic. During “Pride,” he and his female backup dancer (now both fully garbed in red) formed a jaw-dropping tableau. Both were suspended from above by some invisible means, so that she seemed to hold herself up off the stage with one arm and he seemed to balance himself on top of her.
And though the set was bare, except for the occasional waft of heavy fog, the stage design was a gorgeous manifestation of the moods Kendrick confronted. A display screen above him lowered itself to create a claustrophobic ceiling during “m.A.A.d City,” his reminiscence of growing up as a civilian kid surrounded by Compton’s gang wars. Kendrick moved mid-arena to a second stage, tiny and square, to perform a two-song mini-set, rapping “Lust” from within a simulated cage whose bars were strands of twinkling lights, then rising up above on a platform for “Money Trees.”
Whether hauling out his scene-stealing verses from a pair of other rapper’s hits (Future’s “Mask Off” and Schoolboy Q’s “Collard Greens”) or letting the crowd carry a chunk of “Backseat Freestyle” on its own, Kendrick radiated a calm assurance throughout. He didn’t dig deep into To Pimp a Butterfly, his most musically and conceptually ambitious disc – its murky soul-searching dialectics and complex jazz-funk explorations would have thrown off the set’s rhythm. He extracted only the two big anthems. The swaggering “King Kunta” came early in the set, Kendrick waving stiff arms with a martial authority; later, the unofficial Black Lives Matter anthem “Alright” pulsed with a hard-won spirit of uplift.
Streamlined and swift, the show didn’t leave much time for audience interaction, though Kendrick’s personality shined through in the performances itself. Along with an admission that “these motherfuckin’ tickets are not cheap,” we did get the obligatory “Minnesota, it’s been a long motherfuckin’ time y’all,” followed by a claim that he hadn’t passed through our state since 2010. (Fact check: Partly true – Kendrick’s last two Minnesota performances were in 2012, at Soundset and at Epic Nightclub.) And late in the show, before the skittering ballad “Love,” Kendrick joyfully singled out a baby in the crowd that was wearing suitable protective ear wear and an age-appropriate look of bafflement. Had the parents passed their child onstage for Kendrick to cradle in his arms, both rapper and tot would’ve probably been cool with it.
An even more winning interaction was to come. To climax the show Kendrick all but entirely handed “Humble” over the crowd, which rapped the hit word for word, in a way that, at the moment, I guessed was even more exciting than if he’d performed it himself. A few minutes later he proved me wrong with a second rendition of “Humble” that was all him.
Between those two versions, Kendrick crouched center stage to single out a woman in the front row he’d noticed earlier – the video screen revealed her as visibly bored with the spectacle. He pestered her to find out why she wasn’t having a good time, a relentless charm initiative that could have easily become too aggressive, since the poor woman clearly already didn’t want to be there. But he cut off a wave of boos, instructed the crowd to shout “I love you,” and leapt up to perform “Humble,” with the hope that he might win her over. The video soon showed her smiling.
After that Kendrick encored with “God,” one of the most over-the-top boasts in his catalog, and it was a pure victory lap.
Critic’s bias: I’d always thought of Kendrick and Chance the Rapper, contemporary hip-hop’s other young aspirational hero, as representing different approaches to stardom. On record, Chance seems to bound over obstacles with a grace he ascribes to his god, while Kendrick trudges, doubles back, questions, and doubts. But in concert, both MCs are figures of pure inspiration, their virtuosity a life-affirming display of artistic possibility.
The crowd: The loudest arena show I’ve attended since the golden age of boy bands more than 15 years ago, easy.
Notes on the openers: Two very different sides of 21st century rap. D.R.A.M. is a tuneful goofball out of Virginia with a rich R&B delivery and a playful pop-rap flow who mines retro junk culture that predates him by decades: “Gilligan” was accompanied by video clips of the sitcom castaways, “Broccoli” by visuals that mimicked the style of the ‘70s toy Lite Brite. Compton street rhymer YG works in an updated G-Funk style, his rhymes all party and bullshit, his beats spare, his hooks barbed. He brought out two stripper poles, which allowed for a display of copious female booty flesh, then chased a wisecracking Trump impersonator off the stage before the rowdy closer “FDT” and its chorus of “Fuck Donald Trump” rang righteously through the arena.
Random notebook dump: YG’s faux Trump was roaming the crowd prior to Kendrick’s set, where kids eagerly took selfies with the villain they’d been cursing out moments before. Culture is complicated.
Mask Off (Future cover)
Collard Greens (Schoolboy Q cover)
Swimming Pools (Drank)
Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe
Get It Myself
Twist My Fingaz
I Just Wanna Party
Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin)
Toot It and Boot It
Who Do You Love
Why You Always Hatin?