★★★★★ KENDRICK LAMAR, MANCHESTER ARENA Kung-Fu Kenny sets the stage alight
Kendrick Lamar has never been afraid to experiment. Since his first studio album, Section 80, was released in 2011, he’s explored funk, jazz, rock, soundtracks, ballads, and (of course) hip-hop, building himself a reputation based as much on his musical risks as his outspoken political views (as seen in the Black Lives Matter-orientated To Pimp A Butterfly, released to critical acclaim in 2015). Although latest album DAMN. is perhaps his most conventional to date, the wit, religious allusion, and vague sense of unease lurking beneath the surface are fully brought out live, making Lamar’s set nothing less than spellbinding.
Support comes in the form of an unusually short set from electronic artist James Blake, who could possibly sell-out the Manchester Arena on his own headline tour; his glitchy dubstep ballads sound comfortable in such a huge space. Blake leaves the crowd happy, although there’s still an immense sense of anticipation as the headline act draws ever-closer. And once he arrives, boy, does Lamar feed the 21,000…
The first the audience sees of Lamar is the sudden appearance of his alter ego, “Kung-Fu Kenny”, on the huge screens behind the stage. During the first of several pre-recorded ninja spoof sketches that pepper the set, we are told about Kenny’s ongoing quest to find “the glow” (in one of several homages to the 1985 film The Last Dragon). Kenny’s martial art posturing is soon interrupted, however, by an on-stage explosion, prompting screams from the audience; first, of fear, and then of excitement, as the smoke clears to reveal the kneeling figure of Kendrick Lamar on stage. He’s been present—dressed in black martial art robes—for less than ten seconds, and somehow has the audience wrapped around his little finger already.
The tight “DNA” kicks off an astonishingly emotive and energetic set after a further video clip which seems to ridicule Lamar’s conservative critics; as he raps, he seems to spit his soul into the microphone, such is his anger and passion throughout. That said, in-between each song he’s endearingly humble (pun intended), chatting candidly about his love of Manchester and his fans, whilst also promising to make the gig “the liveliest show of their fuckin’ lives”.
Indeed, part of what makes the gig so “lively” is the audience themselves, who roar along to every number, including set highlights “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “LOYALTY”. Lamar works just as hard, using backing dancers, moving stages, gritty visuals, and a whole lot of fire to make each song more exciting than the last. This culminates in “HUMBLE”, which is technically performed twice; the audience sings the majority of the song a capella, before Lamar (the preacher to their congregation) proceeds to nail it himself. The encore of “GOD” provides perhaps the most touching moment of the set, with Lamar’s musings on the almighty made all the more profound by the monochrome waves surging behind him.
It would be wrong to just describe Lamar as a good, or even great, live act. His inexhaustible spirit and commitment to presenting his music in weird and wonderful formats is near-miraculous. At the peak of his career, Lamar is seemingly all-powerful, and the crowd is all-loving in return.