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.