Over the course of history, times of division and strife have at least given society some really good music — folk, punk, riot grrl were all started by common folk decrying systematic injustice. The answer to that call in the downward spiral of the last few years is Kendrick Lamar who, with this latest masterpiece “DAMN.,” continues to represent himself as an artist for the people.
Just a few hours after Lamar surprised fans waiting in line at his one-day-only pop-up store in the West Loop, the rapper began his Thursday night show at the United Center on his knees before thanking the at-capacity crowd for allowing him to “express my feelings on stage … and trust me, listen to me and let yourself be inspired.”
The night’s set list was a carbon copy of previous dates on the DAMN. Tour and included the best cuts (“Humble,” “XXX”) from his latest chart-topping album alongside some of the nuts and bolts of “To Pimp A Butterfly,” such as “Alright,” and his breakthrough hit “Swimming Pools” from his 2012 label debut, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city.” Many of his tracks have put a voice to issues of discrimination, segregation, greed and violence plaguing contemporary society — “God Bless America if it’s good to you,” he says in “XXX.” The lyrics particularly resonate with a hungry youth culture, which was exemplified by this night’s crowd, if not also this week’s announcement that Lamar leads the way in nominations for the MTV Video Music Awards.
Part of the beauty of Lamar (who grew up in Compton) is his old-school yearning, bringing the heartbeat of decades of black music into his entire repertoire, from rich storytelling traditions and poetic ramblings on nearly every track of “DAMN.” to the jazzy under notes of “untitled 02” to a campy homage to the long track record of Asian influence in hip-hop (see Wu-Tang Clan) exemplified by the creative direction behind this tour’s graphics and choreography. In addition to his embellished alter ego, “Kung-Fu Kenny,” who starred in several prerecorded video skits, on-stage costumed ninjas and a karate master served as crowd distractions while sets were reconfigured and Lamar changed from his original ‘Kill Bill’-style yellow tracksuit.
While Lamar has climbed his way to the top rung of hip-hop, his concert production has followed suit with this highly visceral show that uses lights like sirens, fireworks like gunshots and the juxtaposition of videos (for example, slow-mo footage of a street fight paired with a frenetic ping-pong match) to give provide just enough symbolism while asking the audience to also think deeper. The constant in-your-face, blink-and-you-miss-it pace of his performance felt like a 90-minute adrenaline rush with no resting on any kind of laurels allowed. If Lamar’s work is all about movement and action, he supremely created a show that became a physical manifestation of his message.
“There’s a perfect energy in the room now, this is the positive stuff,” he said, telling the crowd he wanted to repay them by bringing out a special if not unsurprising guest, Chance the Rapper. The hometown talent elicited the biggest cheers of the night though the two did just one track together, Chance’s “No Problem.” As Chance left the stage, Lamar told the crowd, “This guy is like my brother. You must always protect him.” Though his message was also ideally about all of us.
NOTE: The DAMN. Tour returns to the United Center August 20.
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.
untitled 07 | 2014-2016
untitled 02 | 6.23.2014
Mask Off (song by Future)
Collard Greens (song by ScHoolboy Q)
Swimming Pools (Drank)
B—-, Don’t Kill My Vibe
No Problem (with Chance the Rapper)