The great dichotomy of the rap world was on display Friday at American Airlines Center.
Simply put, there’s Kendrick Lamar, and there’s everyone else. How many other rap artists have encouraged — no, admonished — the audience to “sit down, be humble” ?
After opener Travi$ Scott — Houston’s latest auto-tuned chart-topper — took flight aboard an animatronic bird with laser eyes for over half of his set, Lamar stayed on his own two feet for one of 2017’s most grounded, introspective, yet goosebump-inducing sets this side of his hometown of Compton, Calif. But, make no mistake, with a crowd that skewed young, many walking out of the arena just before 11 p.m. would tell you that Scott was the more impressive of the two acts.
Whatever the final verdict, the chasm between Lamar’s hour-and-a-half of substance and the genre’s focus on style is a big red sign of the times in hip-hop.
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In support of his fourth studio album, “DAMN.,” his first that deals conceptually with the broad range of consequences stemming from his own fame, Lamar returned time and time again throughout the show to the album’s mantra: “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me.” While at first glance or on first listen, that emphasis may sound as self-centered as the next rapper, Lamar uses it both as a lament of days gone by, and as a reminder.
It’s also one thing to get introspective on album lyrics, and quite another to repeat that line with 18,000 paying customers chanting it along with you like a church service. By the end of the night, Lamar had to acknowledge, “Dallas is prayin’ for me” as he crouched down in concentration for most of “FEEL.,” one of two songs during his encore.
His stage presence mirrors that sentiment. Though a live band followed along from somewhere beneath or behind a largely barren stage, Lamar was a man alone, save for one ninja warrior Lamar shadowboxed on two occasions, and one dancer who appeared to suspend Lamar horizontally during “PRIDE.”
Lamar has always been more interested in pure creativity and supreme technical lyricism than playing into the spectacle that rap has become, or even into the spectacle that arena tours of any genre tend to lend themselves to. Lamar employed selective pyrotechnics and at one point snuck out to a smaller stage in the middle of the floor for “LUST.” and “Money Trees.”
He was there to execute a task and reassure us all that “we gon’ be alright.” He only reached back into 2015’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” twice, for “King Kunta” and “Alright,” the song he would reference again two years later on “DAMN.,” following Fox News’ criticism of some of his more pointed jabs at police brutality.
But he didn’t as pointedly make any points or statements with the crowd. As politically charged as most everything in life has become, he could have scored points, but that would have been too obvious, too center-square for the introspective headliner who let his body language communicate his joy, his exasperation and that snarl of bravado that ties Lamar’s persona all together.
Besides, Friday’s show also showed Lamar’s more playful side, as his latest nickname, Kung-Fu Kenny, begins to stick. The concert, which was the second of 17 stops of the DAMN. tour, included two video interludes that featured Lamar as a character in old, somewhat trippy, Kung-Fu movie footage.
Lamar peeled back several layers Friday that fans can’t get from album art or even from his heart-wrenching catalog of music videos.
He proved it’s not enough to listen to the man who does it differently than everyone else. It’s not even enough to memorize his most famous quotes.
You have to meet him.