When it comes to live shows, Kendrick Lamar has always faced an uphill battle. He isn’t Drake, who breezes through each stadium gig as if it’s just another party on a seemingly endless Ibiza holiday, and he isn’t Kanye West, who is so brilliantly facetious that he based one of his tours on Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. Lamar is far more human than any stars of a similar wattage, and his music – rap records that are ornate bordering on ornery, so poetic and literary that he won a Pulitzer for 2017’s Damn – doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the greatest hits format that pop stars are so often cowed into.
This is doubly true of his most recent album, Mr Morale and the Big Steppers, which is an elaborate and often uncomfortable trauma opera about, among other things, Lamar’s childhood, his unwanted status as a kind of pop messiah, and cancel culture. How do you bring an audience into We Cry Together, a dialogue that plays like a kind of rap Punch and Judy? Or Mirror, whose hook (“I choose me, I’m sorry”) is basically therapy-speak repeated over and over.
Lamar’s solution: lean into the melodrama. Emerge on stage holding a contorted ventriloquist dummy of yourself; hire your cousin and collaborator Baby Keem to go on tour with you, and have him emerge midway through your set under a haze of red smoke like the villain in a panto of your own life. Forgo the Tiffany crown of thorns and biblical overtones of your Glastonbury headline set in favour of a truckstop denim cap and interludes from a “therapist” voiced by Helen Mirren. (Although the setlists share some songs, this is an entirely different show from Lamar’s Glastonbury performance.) At many points, tonight’s gig at Amsterdam’s Ziggo Dome feels like an experimental theatre show, not least when, halfway through, four PPE-clad figures walk on stage to give Lamar a Covid test and deem him “contaminated”.
It is undeniably one of Lamar’s oddest, most involved productions. Thematically, it feels profoundly more coherent than 2017’s fairly minimal, occasionally underwhelming Damn tour. But there is undeniably something contradictory in making a record about wanting to remove yourself from the hubris and ego of pop music and then performing that record for tens of thousands. So Lamar embraces the idea of himself as a performing artist and entertainer in an old-fashioned sense, pulling in visual allusions to puppet shows and ventriloquism, turning We Cry Together into a hazy, talkies-style interlude, projecting a clip of pliéing ballet dancers. Multiple times, he delivers a ringmaster-style welcome: “You could be anywhere in the world but you’re right here, at the greatest show on Earth.”
Keem and Tanna Leone, both signed to Lamar’s company pgLang, serve as the evening’s supports, and both artists are essential to the main set too. Keem’s appearance, in particular, provides a jolting change of pace in the show’s second half. And Lamar himself has become a far more engaging performer: his poised, careful movement matches the lizardy basslines of his latest record, and although he dutifully runs through all his hits, it is N95 and Mr Morale, the second and penultimate song of the set, respectively, that feel the most dynamic and dazzling.
As on his past tours, this is still a minimal show. But this is also Lamar’s best tour, period: the most thoughtfully produced and most tightly blocked, the truest and most exciting display of Lamar’s talents as a performer and director. As with Mr Morale and the Big Steppers, it paints a picture of Lamar as one of our strangest megastars. Not a saviour, as he stresses on the record, but an artist, a true freak and, now, a magnificent performer.
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