Live Report: Kendrick Lamar – O2 Arena, London | Live
“I haven’t seen you in five years…”
In the ever-changing realms of hip-hop, it’s a select few who will not only shape the future of the genre, but more importantly the music, period. Kendrick Lamar is unmistakably one of them, a voice that needs little or no introduction. The release of this year’s division ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’ made for a powerful critique of ‘cancellation culture’, addressing the hushed roles of morality and forgiveness in contemporary society. The Big Steppers Tour, a phenomenal two-hour performance, extends the impact of the project while revisiting the legacy of one of this generation’s most important artists. The opening night of the three-date London adventure is particularly special, attracting fans from all walks of life, lined up in their uniforms of “Mr. Morale” T-shirts, hoodies and bucket hats.
LA riser Tanna Leone is the first to sample the crowd, taking his down-tempo approach to trap music that defines his first album “Sleepy Soldier”. Followed by a boosted performance by Baby Keem, the engine roars for the opening track ‘trademark usa’ and sees the rhymer finally settle into his stage presence. let’s be honest, the jump between Electric Brixton and a performance at the O2 Arena has got to be a pretty surprising feat, one that the rappers seem well equipped for, anyway.
The lights go out and the curtains are drawn, teasing K-Dot’s quick arrival on stage. The moment divides the room, some in a trivial fixation on a CashApp advertisement flashing across the screens, others deafening their neighbors in loud excitement. Perhaps a pompous assertion, but hearing football chants alongside the poise and wisdom of a Kendrick Lamar spectacle, must fall under sacrilege.
The dancers are led across the floor by taut string sections, stiff and firm in their choreography that steer tonight’s performance towards the avant-garde. It’s worth emphasizing everyone’s strengths on stage, creating an intricate show that elevates the laid-back elements of live music. The main stage is revealed, minimal but theatrical in its design of white tiles, a bed and a piano. One by one, the bulbs surrounding Lamar flicker, delivering the austere “United In Grief” as a ventriloquist, seated next to a puppet. Pausing mid-verse, a spotlight falls on the track and Kendrick Lamar steps confidently towards the mic stand, filling a silent room with his footsteps. It continues where it left off, proving how experimental rapping, accompanied by a stripped down and chaotic drum pattern, can, and will in turn, be enjoyed by the masses. Willingly. The empowering impulses and meandering introspection of “Worldwide Steppers” make a similar statement in its execution, indifferent to the more accessible forms of hip-hop that would make the arena soundtrack.
‘N95’ follows and is a fiery climax, upping the energy with visceral flows and racing and heavyweight production that take a sharp turn in performance. Looking away, Lamar nods in recognition of his crowd, having now made his final entrance.
Dive into the 2017s ‘DAMN.’, it’s the likes of “ELEMENT” offering a momentary break while still holding their weight lyrically. “I don’t do it for the ‘Gram, I do it for Compton” – a line that has only grown in relevance to the rapper’s social position today.
The easiest songs to live with don’t last long. Dive straight into “Backseat Freestyle”, the favorite of hardcore fans the setlist refuses to lower the rhythm. Leading with its menacing chimes and rumbling bass lines, it’s a welcome re-visit of “Good Kid, MAAd City,” discarding the more obvious tastes of “Swimming Pools (Drank)” or “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”. ‘. In due time, Lamar’s breakthrough caught the eye and, quite frankly, never sounded better.
So far, it feels like Kendrick’s focus, and rightly so, has been heavily consumed by a strictly crafted and timed performance. The decision to use a narrator between transitions, leaving enigmatic traces for the watchful fan is one of the few key details that set the performance aside. Alternatively, the collective sense of movement and on-stage visuals, of Lamar’s figure, hunched over with arrows pierced through his back during the surrender of “Count Me Out,” are all critical embellishments.
Still, as the night climaxes with “Money Trees,” it feels like Lamar is relaxing for his crowds. Playful in his flows and intonations, the rapper now squats with his fans and breaks the fourth wall. The more unpredictable collaboration themes are also introduced. Rising center stage, Baby Keem and Lamar stand parallel to each other, sharing an unparalleled synergy that sees the pair clear the final hurdle of the night, a “family ties” tag team performance. There is a distinct power in the exchange of verses and ad-libs, testifying to a generational shift in rapping. It leaves one wondering if this could be one of the last instances of the cousins joining forces onstage, sensing an urgency for Keem to step out of his familiar affiliations with the Compton figure.
Bringing the night to a close with ‘Savior’, crowds are left in the celebratory spirit, equally aware of the overarching message behind ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’. Favoring rap’s more experimental direction and impactful goals, Kendrick Lamar presents much more than a full-scale discography, K-Dot rewrites the rulebook from start to finish.
“It’s ‘The Big Steppers Tour’, the greatest show on earth…”
Words: Ana Lamond