Kendrick Lamar gives the people what they want, on his terms

“WELCOME HOME KENDRICK LAMAR,” read Wednesday night outside the Arena, where the 35-year-old Compton rapper first arrived, on a banner the size of a city bus, each letter three or four feet high Concerts to conclude the North American leg of his latest world tour.

Inside the crowded building, the warmth of his welcome was even more pronounced as a row of gauzy white curtains lifted to reveal Lamar seated at a piano, with a ventriloquist dummy (!) beside him. The atypical prop lets you know he had something conceptual up his sleeve. Yet the place erupted like it had come out and fired a t-shirt cannon.

How does one explore the burden of flattery in an environment designed for glorification? That’s the essence of Lamar’s roadshow, following this year’s Mr. Moral & the Big Steppers”, a dense but finely detailed double LP about his unfitness for the heroic role as the voice of a generation he was cast for – and at times seemed eager to fulfill – since he began working with Dr. Dre’s blessing erupted a decade ago.

In songs that juggle wildly varying beats and textures, Lamar confesses a sex addiction that drove him to cheating on his longtime romantic partner; he raps about giving in to materialism against his better judgment and fighting not to repeat his father’s parenting mistakes. But he also makes it clear that moral leadership isn’t necessarily the kind a superstar musician should offer.

“I can’t please everyone,” he shrugs on “Crown”; “I choose myself, I’m sorry,” he explains in the “Mirror”.

A rapper on stage with a ventriloquist dummy that looks like him.

Enter Kendrick Lamar and friend.

(Greg Noire)

To a certain extent, you could say Lamar got what he wanted: although it’s almost certain that he’ll be showered with Grammy nominations this fall — including a likely fifth straight Album of the Year nomination — is the gnarly “Mr. Moral hasn’t released any hit singles to rival 2017’s Damn. or his 2018 soundtrack for Black Panther. Right now, neither Billboard’s Hot 100 nor the Spotify US Top 50 feature a single track from Lamar amid inescapable tunes from the likes of Drake, Future and Post Malone. It could be argued that, much like Beyoncé before him (at least until she returned to No. 1 this summer with “Break My Soul”), Lamar entered his prestige period as a deep thinker more attuned to cultural impact than commercial clout .

Except, of course, for the thousands of fans at, who seemed undeterred—by statistics or by the rapper himself—to consider Lamar a champion. More than once, a reverent chant of his name rang out in the crowd, which spanned generations and racial backgrounds.

A keen observer of pop traditions (even if he largely stays away from the hustle and bustle of social media), Lamar understands the need for his different selves to coexist in an arena show. Indeed, his striking outfit—a white jacket with the word Compton and a single glittery glove à la Michael Jackson—suggested he’d found a way to keep any residual hunger for fame within the framework of his notions of home and black history to embed

For nearly two hours, he alternated meditative new songs like “United in Grief,” “Father Time,” and “Count Me Out” with rowdy old hits like “Humble” and “DNA” on At one point, he strings together tantalizing snippets of “King Kunta,” “Loyalty,” “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” — a joke perhaps, but an effective one that demonstrates intellectual ambition even his most radio-friendly songs.

Lamar also knew that the crispness of his rapping, essential to the complexity of his storytelling on record, would surely be lost in the booming acoustics of a basketball arena. So often he let the audience carry large parts of his old tunes. And he offered much stimulation beyond his singing: A team of dancers and dancers performed for much of “Mr. Morale” material, and the set consisted of two large cubes, one with see-through walls, in which Lamar performed an indirect narrative through introspection involving this puppet, four guys in hazmat suits, and the disembodied voice of a therapist who narrates reportedly played by Helen Mirren. (His musical accompaniment sounded live – “Savior” was given a funky psychedelic-soul outro not heard on the album – although no band was featured.)

Perhaps most enjoyable of all was Lamar’s own dance—a series of subtle little slides and flaps that made him look like someone’s cool uncle showing up on time for the family cookout. That may be exactly what he thought of himself on Wednesday. no hero No idol. Just a guy who learned how to wear himself best. Kendrick Lamar gives the people what they want, on his terms

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