Over the same weekend that West Coast legend DJ Quik was set to play a small Sydney gig in the cramped side room of Metro Theatre, fellow Compton emcee Kendrick Lamar performed two tightly-packed shows at the staggeringly large Qudos Bank Arena as part of his global The Big Steppers tour.
Two enormous symbols of West Coast hip hop from two completely different generations, the juxtaposition reiterating how wide-reaching the L.A. sound has become over the past few years as it has re-emerged and re-shaped, elevated so brilliantly by Kendrick and his ability to speak to both worlds – the hyper-commercial realm of pop and the often esoteric, self-referential outlet of hip hop.
Kendrick’s fifth studio album, Mr Morale & The Big Steppers, was released in May of this year after an exceedingly long hiatus. One which was filled with such pent-up anticipation that it reiterated just how beloved Lamar has become over the past decade, particularly since his second studio album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City become somewhat of a magnum opus for west coast hip hop.
Mr Morale was a challenging album for many who have become accustomed to viewing Kendrick as the supreme emcee of our time. The saviour. An unimpeachable rapper that can produce highly intelligent works of art, nail concept albums and still hold space for radio-friendly songs that don’t feel like they’ve been compromised. Or lessened by the need to sell in a landscape that has become ridiculously same-same.
And yet, as challenging as the heavily acclaimed album was, it’s not hard to hear what Kendrick was trying to do here. Conceived as a therapy session, the project did a very deep-dive into the highly-analytical mind of Lamar, speaking on vulnerabilities, resentment, insecurities and a touch of politics.
To bring it to life, Kendrick chose to have actress Helen Mirin play narrator, guiding Kendrick through his own mind. Thematically, this helped Lamar break up his set list into very digestible chunks, switching songs as a function of what aspect of the rapper they were trying to convey.
Yet, Mirin’s voice wasn’t as much of a presence as an indication that Lamar was starting a new chapter in his set, whether that was built by breathtaking story-driven tracks like “M.A.A.D City” or deeply self-aware ones like “DNA”. This technique worked for the most part, and Mirin’s voice came across like butter as it echoed over the speakers. Yet there were times when Kendrick’s conceit failed him, along with his forward political views.
Just before the monstrously popular “Alright,” a transparent cube dropped from the ceiling and trapped Lamar along with several uniformed “health workers”.
“Time for your Covid test”, Mirin said.
The crowd laughed nervously as Lamar tested positive (not for real) and was trapped in the cube with these health professionals while launching into “Alright.”
Yet the antics cut the song’s furious edge a bit. Implying that health workers during a pandemic were as bad as the corrupt police that terrorise neighbourhoods like Compton didn’t – and doesn’t – seem like a very good idea.
Lamar would punctuate most of his set list with silence, even going so far as to audibly say “and stop” when one song was done and the stage temporarily faded to black – just another part of Kendrick’s tight grip on minimalism. An exception came when the rapper seuged the franatic “Worldwide Steppers” into “Backstreet Freestyle” – the first truly big moment of the set.
Sonically, the biggest takeaway from the Lamar concert is one I suspected before coming. Mr Morale was made with a live performance in mind. And by “performance” I do mean the type of production you’d usually see on a stage show.
This was a stage show second, and a hip hop concert first. That’s perhaps the best way describe what Kendrick set out to achieve with this lush, sophisticated show.
By the time Lamar closed out the night with “Mr Morale” and “Saviour,” it was hard to spot a single seated person in the crowd. Kendrick had people on their feet since the one-two punch of the urgent “N95” and slick “Element” appear early in the set.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The author attended the concert as a guest of Live Nation.