CONCERT REVIEW: Revisiting Kendrick Lamar live

‘The Big Steppers Tour’ at State Farm Arena

#1 Kendrick Lamar Credit PgLang Reduced
Photo credit: pgLang
PRODUCTION VALUES: Kendrick Lamar’s were ‘far above anything you’d see from a Broadway production.’

Kendrick Lamar is not the same performer he was in 2014. As an artist, he was already leaps and bounds above the competition, catapulting to the top of music and snatching the crown as the king of rap with his second album, 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. It was a musical blitzkrieg, one of the greatest albums of all time, a motion picture focused around a young black kid growing up in Compton and being pulled in different directions by his family, his artistic ambitions, gang life, and his hometown, largely debased by greater society. I, like many other music fans, had found my new favorite rapper. But once I had seen this fresh pariah perform on the album’s titular tour, as crazy as it sounds, I wasn’t convinced of his ability as a live artist.

How could it be? The greatest rapper of a generation delivered a subpar performance, full of all the cliches that make a live music snob like me roll their eyes into the darkest crevices of their eye sockets. “Let’s see which side of the arena is the loudest.” “Repeat the chorus after me.” As a young music blogger at the time, I described Kendrick as “walking around the stage rapping without passion,” and dubbed the concert “Good Kid, S.H.O.W. Shitty.” (Tough critic.) It’s very possible that this was just a bad night — he was performing at a college campus on 4/20, as a nonsmoker — but the impression stuck with me.

But, as I said earlier, Lamar is not the same performer he was in 2014. His subsequent tours for To Pimp A Butterfly and DAMN. were both lauded for their performance and high production value. Both of those albums were critical and commercial smashes — the latter winning a Pulitzer Prize for music. After a five year break, Lamar returned this year with his fifth album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, a therapy session recorded to tape, the journey of man diving into everything in his psyche in an attempt to heal his trauma to continue to grow. With the new album, came the announcement of a new tour. And I finally decided to revisit an artist I love at State Farm Arena.

I’M YOUR PUPPET: Mr. Morale himself awed an arena full of fans July 30 in Atlanta. PHOTO CREDIT: pgLang
The stage was clean and minimal. White curtains would ascend and descend, either to serve as a backdrop for a silhouetted projection or to unveil a new element like a piano or bed. Given the content of Mr. Morale, I’m concluding that Kendrick was inviting us into his mind. The aforementioned projections showed Kendrick rapping with arrows in his back or the argument between partners from the song “We Cry Together.” To me, the stage production was reminiscent of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a stage play about a young boy with autism, where the minimalist, gridded set is a canvas for his inner psyche. But, Kendricks’ production value was far above anything you’d see from a Broadway production. Dancers in suits lined the stage performing choreography that was often purposefully robotic, often fluid and ballet-like. Songs were often segued by an omnipresent British woman’s voice, playing off the themes of the album, at one point stating, “You’ve let your ego get the best of you.” (Another tie to Curious Incident, where actors move only in straight lines and a British woman who serves as his guiding light and therapist.) Fire and fireworks burst from the floor, further amplifying high energy songs like “Backseat Freestyle” and “HUMBLE.” At one point, Kendrick was sealed in a cellophane cube, given a COVID test by a team in hazmat suits, and, once he “tested positive,” the box was filled with smoke and elevated a full story above the floor, leaving him to perform in isolation. There was never a dull moment. Something new to marvel at continuously popped up to grab the audience’s attention.

Production values come with a larger budget. It can elevate the flaws in an artist’s performance, but if the most interesting components of your stage show are pyrotechnics and dancers, you have a problem. This was not the case for Kendrick Lamar. The confidence, comfortability, and power he resonated while on the stage by himself were some of the best elements of the night. Had the budget been $0, the live show would have still thrived. Each line was delivered with passion. You could see his heart in every word.

Perhaps my favorite moment was when the curtains revealed Kendrick alone, hunched-over in a chair under a single spotlight. The power of that image incapsulated everything that the tour and album supporting it was about. Introspection. Reflection. Pondering. Growth. At the age of 35, having captured the adoration of hundreds of millions, this man knows he has more to learn about himself and the world. His performance was a celebration of the trying process, the uphill climb, that leads to bettering oneself. In that moment, it was almost like the thousands of people in the arena ceased to exist, and we were secretly capturing a glimpse of a person sitting with themself. —CL—