“Jam of the year, album of the year” is what everyone has been saying since Kendrick Lamar dropped Damn in 2017. In 2018, Damn continues to be relevant. Humble still is the hottest party moment, clubs still blast Loyalty and DNA and raving about Damn still is a conversation starter.
Kendrick just finished touring the European leg of the Damn tour in March. It was damn rad.
I saw him live in London, at the end of February at the O2 Wembley Arena. I was truly blown away: seeing him live is even more intense than listening to his music. The dominating energy he conveys, intertwined with the way he breathes life into his songs, and combined with the sheer excitement of his fans, is electric.
James Blake opened the concert with his fuzzy, dreamy and beautiful music. He might seem an odd supporting act choice for Kendrick Lamar, but the two of them, who collaborated on the Black Panther album soundtrack (King’s Dead is a hell of a tune!) complemented each other quite wonderfully. James Blake’s self-possessed sadness and delicate, heart-breaking piano notes were a prelude to Lamar’s anger, passion and vibrancy. On my way home, still buzzing, I played Retrograde almost nostalgically.
Coming back to Kendrick Lamar, who, at the height of his stardom, is a force to be reckoned with. You can feel it in his music, in his presence, in his confidence, in the powerful connection he has with his audience. He is in-your-face, defying and consuming. And real.
What separates Kendrick Lamar from other rappers or mainstream artists is his self-awareness; his music was described as “conscious rap”, and rightfully so. He doesn’t sing about (or just about) the usual bling-bling and the clichés that overflow mainstream music and rap, especially: the cars, the women, the haters etc. He is true to himself and to his fire. He raps about pain, depression, political injustices, discrimination and racism. His music is angry and he asks the right questions. His music is not escapism, but a reflection of reality, an insight into a less glamorized life. He is raw, honest and his music is the perfect soundtrack for the present political context.
Kendrick Lamar’ uniqueness flows from his performances. He carries the shows by himself, with almost no dancers except for one, who appears briefly at some point, along with a man dressed like a ninja. The visual effects are minimum; but breathtaking nonetheless: from lighting up the stage with fire, to screening a sequence of videos which resembled arthouse films (even the disturbing eyeball-cutting scene from Un Chien Andalou), and to a funny sketch in which he practices his kung-fu skills (Kung Fu Kenny Practices His Motherfuckin’ Skills), Kendrick had us hooked. This is almost strange nowadays, as most mainstream musicians have dozens of back-up dancers, distracting visuals and an elaborated choreography. But not him; he rocks the songs by himself, singing, bouncing and ordering the audience to get down. He barely takes any pauses between songs, simply jumping from one to the other, cursively. However, in the few pauses he did take, the iconic lyric “Ain’t nobody praying for me” was blasted, deafeningly, and accompanied with blinding lights.
Finally, Kendrick, standing in the middle of the stage by himself, statuesque, showered in applause and screams, is a powerful image, almost a statement. He is enough to captivate you.
A highlight of the show was the audience a capella version of Humble (done twice). Almost 20,000 people (as it was a sold-out show) screaming all the lyrics perfectly, jumping, turning to each other with large grins, as if they could not believe they were there. All those people passionately yelling “I remember syrup sandwiches and crime allowances” proves Kendrick’s power and the power of his political music. Kendrick Lamar is a breath of fresh air in mainstream music. He stands against the homogenized pop that tops the charts and we are here for it. He represents a cultural shift – he takes a stand, and, by listening to his music, we are taking a stand too.
At the end of the gig, I was adoringly shaken and revitalized. I was left mulling over Placebo’s rockstar Brian Molko’s recent statement, who said that “anything that’s stuck its head above the bullshit has been by black artists – whether it’s R&B or hip-hop, or however many sub-genres there are of that now.”
*Setlist: Mostly Damn, with bits of To Pimp a Butterfly and M.A.A.D.
* Kendrick Lamar ended the European leg of Damn on the sixth of March, in Berlin. But don’t fret: he will soon launch into another tour in 2018, “The Championship Tour”, with the likes of SZA and ScHoolboy Q (all Top Dawg labelmates). Unmissable, I must say.