Kendrick Lamar, Damn Tour

“Like a hip hop take on Bruce Nauman.” [author]Arwa Haider[/author] takes in the mesmerizing, show-stopping visuals of Kendrick Lamar’s Damn tour at the O2 in London.

Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar has powered his way to global superstar status over several years, somehow without surrendering his street edge. His fourth studio album Damn proved to be one of 2017’s most thrilling releases: eloquent, surreal and fiery, if more introspective than its jazz-fuelled 2015 predecessor, To Pimp a Butterfly. Lamar’s Damn live tour reaches European arenas in the wake of US rave reviews, as well as his blockbuster movie music. However, there’s no mention of his Black Panther soundtrack tonight; instead, triple overhead screens introduce Lamar as his alter-ego, Kung Fu Kenny, with a kitschy film homage (recurring throughout the show) nodding to the long-time dynamic between hip hop battle culture and martial arts imagery. When the thirty-year-old artist emerges onstage to audience roars, he’s crouched and ready to pounce with an explosive opening gambit from his latest album (“I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA”).

Lamar has wielded a savvy audio-visual artistry with his work to date, including collaborations with film-maker Kahlil Joseph and his video productions as The Little Homies (Kendrick’s creative duo with Dave Free). The Little Homies’ visuals are put to resonant effect in this show; they liberally sample from a vast array of reference points, yet still serve up fresh food for thought. Occasionally they demand a strong stomach; Lamar’s wry groove on Element (“I’ma make it look sexy”) is set to blood-red lighting and a film loop of lotus flowers and a gooey eye dissection, recalling both Buñuel and alt-rockers the Butthole Surfers.

This is a night of potent contrasts, with both vastness and unusual intimacy; it takes an exceptionally assured performer to command a 20,000-capacity venue, without anybody else on stage. Lamar’s virtuoso live band remains concealed in the wings; special mention should also go to elegantly fierce dancer Michelle Foster, who materializes for a dreamlike interlude. When Lamar addresses the audience, he’s cheerfully laid-back (“We right here now, right?… This gonna be the livest muthafuckin’ experience of your lives”), but there’s serious intent here and a theatrical atmosphere enhanced by the fluid designs of lighting director Cory FitzGerald. Lamar’s “ain’t nobody prayin for me” mantra (reprised throughout DAMN’s lyrics) echoes sonically and visually, like a hip hop take on Bruce Nauman. The set-list draws from across Lamar’s catalogue, to the crowd’s delight; his hypnotic 2012 anthem Swimming Pools (Drank), from his Good Kid, M.A.A.D City album, flows against mesmerizing liquid visuals.

Lamar employs playful trickery along with his sharp rhymes; on the main stage, he appears to float horizontally while declaring “Levitate!” on Untitled 07, taken from 2016’s Untitled Unmastered compilation. Later he rises from an iridescent B-stage box amidst the audience to deliver Money Trees. There are ruminations on state and soul, illusory sensations (“Maybe I wasn’t there,” he muses, on Pride) and an audience that responds with a word-perfect rendition of Humble. Lamar isn’t the first rapper to perform a one-man show on a grand scale, yet he does exert a transformative force and momentum: not merely a player, but a game-changer.

Elephant Rating: 🐘🐘🐘🐘🐘 (5/5)

All images provided by label


Kenrick Lamar, Damn

Until March 5, various locations