The first time I saw Kendrick Lamar live was nearly four years ago at Key Arena in Seattle when he was opening for Kanye West during the Yeezus tour. I thought about that show a lot during his headlining performance at the United Center on Thursday night. Kendrick was certainly an enigmatic presence back then, but he wasn’t the most galvanizing performer in the world. Throughout his 45 minutes onstage, he gamely ran through some of the best material from his first two albums, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and Section 80, but the hood of his sweatshirt remained on his head the entire time. The flows were immaculate, but the engagement with the crowd was lacking. I came away pleased, but not bowled over.
The contrast between him and Kanye couldn’t have been starker. Ye showed up with his face obscured as well; by a jeweled, custom-designed Margiela mask. He had dancers in nude body suits, a giant tilted screen, fake snow, a Yeti-type creature with glowing red eyes, a giant 40-foot tall ice volcano, oh yeah, and an actor portraying Jesus Christ. He also had himself. For two-hours and more, Kanye’s intensity never flagged as he ripped into every single cut from his new album as well as older favorites. It remains one of the greatest pure performances I’ve ever seen.
Kendrick surely must’ve taken notes from Yeezy’s presentation during their weeks on the road together, because so many of those same elements — the theatrics, the intensity, the engagement, the props, the ornate set-pieces, the extras, the vignettes — that knocked me out that night in Seattle were on full display at this show in Chicago. In the past four years, while releasing two incredible masterpieces, To Pimp A Butterfly and DAMN, and marking his claim on the title, “greatest rapper alive,” Kendrick has also apparently also mastered the incredibly difficult art of the arena rap concert.
A massive, black curtain flew into the rafters promptly at 9:30 PM, revealing a large video screen. The large blank void quickly came to life, displaying a trippy, psychedelic video montage that followed Kendrick through some kind of old school, ’70s martial arts training program. The film ran its course, and everything went dark, until a deafening blast of pyro. Smoke filled the arena. People screamed their heads off and the man of the hour appeared out of the clouds in a yellow track suit. He knelt down, letting the mania wash over him, until the familiar voice of a Fox News anchor heralded the beginning of “DNA.”
In those first few moments it became stunningly clear that this was a completely different performer than the one I’d seen all those years back. There was an incredible amount of passion in the way he rapped, the way he ran across the stage, and the way he connected with the crowd. It wasn’t that he merely kept people’s attentions — as the headliner of any show, that’s pretty easy to do — it’s that he inspired awe. Seeing it up close thanks to the amazing access that only American Express can provide only made the thrills even bigger.
The theatrical elements were fantastic. As soon as those Nike Cortez’s touched the stage, the man we know and love as Kendrick Lamar was left behind. What we’re presented instead is this new figure, Kung Fu Kenny, a swaggering, exuberant presence, extremely eager to leave an impression. “This is the most livest mother*cking experience you’ll ever f*cking experience Chicago,” he loudly warned. “Please be prepared.”
I tried, but little could prepare me for the glowing LED cage he climbed into to perform “Lust,” or the way he rapped an entire song while hanging horizontally over another dancer clad in red, or the multiple ninjas who performed fight routines at intermittent points of the show. I also couldn’t prepare myself to hear his incredible catalog of music blasted at my face at 100 decibels and more, but then he’d bust out “Alright,” “America,” “XXX,” Swimming Pools,” “M.A.A.D. City,” “Money Trees,” “Loyalty” or “B*tch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and my jaw would practically hit the floor.
As Kendrick’s opener, Travis Scott showed that he took a few queues from his mentor Kanye West as well. Though Thursday night was the first time I’d seen Trav on stage as a performer, I had run into him last year during the first show of Yeezy’s Saint Pablo tour in Indianapolis. That was yet another galvanizing experience, watching Kanye fly through the air on a floating stage, going H.A.M. while observing the mass of faces wild out below him just out of reach.
I think it’s safe to say that it made as big an impression on Travis as it did on me, because only three songs into his set, the Birds In The Trap Sign McKnight rapper, boarded a massive mechanical eagle and took off on high, rapping over hits like “Butterfly Effect,” “3500,” and of course “Goosebumps” which he ran back a couple of times. A spotlight gripped in the bird’s talons scanned the crowd, illuminating individual members of a 20,000 person strong collective all losing their minds as one. Everything you’ve heard about Travis’s skills as a live performer are entirely true and then some.
The biggest pop of the night came in the final thirty minutes. While catching his breath, Kendrick paused to big-up Chicago, a city he referred to as, “My second home.” Then, just after those words left his lips, who should ascend from under the stage but the city’s current, favorite son, Chance The Rapper. Together, the two stars raced back and forth across the stage bringing to life Chance’s anthemic Coloring Book single “No Problems.” It was an entirely rhapsodic pause from the regularly scheduled programming. Everyone in the United Center was beaming, but none so much as K Dot himself, who admonished us all that “Forever you must protect Chance,” (we agree, for what it’s worth) after the song ended and Chano had left the stage.
To close the show Kenny busted out the big single from his latest album, the song “Humble.” He performed half of the first verse, then gave the rest of the song over to the thousands of people splayed out in front of him who came together and nailed the entire thing totally a cappella.
It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen live. The only thing I could compare it to is Pearl Jam’s tendency to let their crowds take the first verse of “Better Man,” during their live sets but at least those audiences know what to expect after years and years of mining that trope. These folks nailed “Humble” — a song only a few months old — with deadly accuracy and without any kind of warning at all. Kendrick eventually rewarded their efforts by queuing up his unseen band and bringing it to life himself after we had finished our take.
For the last song of the night in the encore, Kendrick slipped into the penultimate track off DAMN, “GOD.” It was astonishing to watch this larger than life figure boast about his deity-like status in one breath, then ask us all not to judge him for it in the other. It’s one thing to be a great artist, but it requires a completely different set of skills to be a great performer. Not all of the supposedly “great artists” are able to make that leap. Through grit and guile, and maybe some diligent note-taking, Kendrick has firmly joined the pantheon of excellent in-person entertainers — there’s not a damn thing he needs to be humble about.