It’s nearly impossible to talk about Kendrick Lamar without addressing the truly momentous impact he’s had on America’s political landscape. It’s even harder to try and navigate if I, a fair-skinned, fairly privileged, aspiring writer and Australian man can or even should address the politics of Kendrick’s music – given how it’s intrinsically tied to the experience and lives of African Americans in today’s U.S.A.
What I will say is this. In the era of Trump, the resurgence of Nazi ideology, and the ever-growing threats to the livelihoods and safety of minority groups in America, it is hard to name an artist more relevant to the political zeitgeist of 2018. Perhaps by design, it felt as if the political themes and imagery of Lamar’s music were somewhat subdued for the Australian audiences. Not knowing the structure of his shows outside of my experience at Qudos Arena in Sydney, it’s not a hypothesis I can confirm – but I can only imagine the specific themes pertaining racial conflict in America would be somewhat lost on the predominantly white and mostly non-minority crowd at this show.
Bookended and punctuated by a very Wu-Tang Clan reminiscent, Kung-Fu Grindhouse audiovisual presentation (the adventures of “Kung Fu Kenny”), Kendrick Lamar’s first Sydney show of his DAMN tour was one hell of a banger. Opening with ‘D.N.A’ from the tour’s namesake album, and quickly followed by the 2015 smash hit ‘King Kunta’, Kendrick set the momentum for the night to come. It was a showcase of his latest album’s most popular tracks, historical hits, and a smattering of early career tracks for “Kendrick diehards” (of which it seemed comprised most of the audience).
Performing almost isolated on a bare stage, band members and DJ on the outskirts, Lamar’s specific brand of high-intensity minimalism was the star of the show. It was truly breathtaking watching an artist captivate nearly twenty thousand people nearly single handedly. It was rare to see him stray more than a few metres from centre stage whilst performing – preferring instead to focus his intensity and lyricism straight ahead into the crowd. Lamar very obviously respects a level of stillness. That being said, it would be disingenuous to call anything about this show truly ‘still’ – Lamar’s ferocity shining through in his ducks, weaves and arm movements, like a sign language interpreter standing in place, throwing caution to the wind.
On occasion the show would mellow for a slower track or two. More than once Kendrick moved to a constructed platform between the tiered audience divider, surrounded by a collection of fairy lights and lowly lowered and raised with the beginning and ends of a song. A solitary dancer would occasionally join him on stage – her performances ranging from a Kung Fu appropriation of movements to a more traditional hip-hop choreography. When on stage, she was a mesmerising punctuation of Kendrick’s tracks.
The highlight of the night, by far, was an impromptu acapella rendition of ‘HUMBLE’ – DAMN’s biggest hit. Kendrick began the song in ferocious fashion, before quickly allowing both the instrumentals and his vocals to fade out – leaving only the crowd spitting his lyrics. He allowed them to almost complete the song before riling the crowd up once more, restarting the track, and bringing it to a spectacular finish. It was moments like that which forgave Kendrick’s occasional lack of crowd interaction.
Seeing the world’s biggest hip-hop act was a hell of a way to spend my first ever rap gig attendance. It’s sometimes hard to justify forking out a hundred plus dollars for even the most stellar musical acts, but I cannot speak highly enough about what an experience this night was. Don’t expect Kendrick Lamar’s career to slow down any time soon – and if he’s ever playing near you, go. It is well worth every cent.