Kendrick Lamar is no longer a cult figure, his breakthrough album Good Kid M.A.A.D. City swept up a furore of universal acclaim and huge record sales. Yet there was still a tangible feeling in the audience last night that we were experiencing something incredibly fresh, and were witness to the rise of one of our time’s most innovative rappers. It was Kendrick’s first time to Newcastle too.
There were two very striking features of Kendrick’s set. Firstly, it was incredibly minimal. Kendrick only had his DJ on stage that MC’d for the first five minutes and then stuck to the decks. Moreover, as apparent on the album, the beats were so simple. This provided the contrast for the most brilliant part of the set, which was the sheer craftsmanship of Lamar’s lyrics. In fact, on numerous occasions, he’d stop the decks to freestyle on his own, and on one song even told the audience to pay attention to the words. Furthermore, the speed of his lyric delivery is not totally appreciated until you see him up there, not missing a beat in his poetic stream-of-consciousness.
These two features made it very evident that this was a no-bullshit rapper. He didn’t need the public image of his contemporaries such as Riff Raff or Chief Keef. In fact he looked incredibly normal on stage with just a hoody, and would not have stood out in a crowd. All emphasis was made on the music.
And boy was he not cashing in on the classics either. The first three or four songs of his set were from his acclaimed but less-well-known earlier album Section.80, the highlight being “ADHD”. He even did some songs from his first EP and earlier mixtapes. Fortunately the Newcastle crowd was very well versed on their Kendrick Lamar, and managed to shout back every chorus that Kendrick threw at them.
Yet when Kendrick asked if anyone had heard of his new album Good Kid and went straight into “Money Trees,” things became electric. He went on to do an onslaught of the incredible hits from that album, the highlight being “Backseat Freestyle” especially the “biaaaatch-Coldplay” build-up (the jury is out on whether Kendrick actually says Coldplay, but I will certainly be singing it, and will defy anyone who wants to prove me wrong). Kendrick even did a smooth medley from “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” into “Poetic Justice,” which was good but seemed to cut the first song, perhaps the album’s strongest, off a bit short. Overall, Kendrick played around half and half of Section .80 and Good Kid material, which though disappointingly meant that he missed a few Good Kid greats such as “Compton” and “Sing about Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” also merited a lot of respect, in that Kendrick called the shots and not his audience. In fact the encore was one of Kendrick’s earlier more obscure tracks.
Indeed, this sense of self-respect and control really resonated in Kendrick’s character if you compare him to another rapper of similar status, Danny Brown. A friend remembered how at a London gig Danny came on stage with a bottle of Hennessey’s, fell off stage, and apparently got a handjob during the set, though somehow managed to do an incredible performance. This kind of excess wouldn’t happen at a Kendrick Lamar gig. But it doesn’t mean that Kendrick was somehow a tamer rapper, it’s just that all the energy went into the music. Even gangster rap, which Lamar was definitely a disciple of, being Compton-bred and a Dr. Dre collaborator, seemed less about intimidation and more a communal celebration, most noticeably in his performance of the really dark “m.A.A.d city.”
Kendrick also showed himself to be a really principled character. He gave respect to his hometown Compton, as well as those that helped him on the way, giving a brief account of his musical career through introducing his songs. He also gave a shout out to all his doubters and made the pretty impressive, and mostly true, statement that “we made the mainstream come to us.” But perhaps the greatest moment of the whole set was at the end, when Kendrick picked out a fan at the front, who had known every single word to Lamar’s songs and impressed the rapper by keeping up with him for the whole hour and a half. Kendrick brought the fan on stage for everyone to see him, and told the crowd that this guy was the reason he’d be coming back to Newcastle, though next time he’ll probably be in the Metro Arena at £50 a ticket.