18 Jul 2018

REVIEW: King Kendrick gives Dunedin a DAMN good time

From Music 101, 9:23 am on 18 July 2018

The crowd at Kendrick Lamar's Dunedin show kept bouncing and dancing the whole way through the set. Yadana Saw was amongst the thousands at the award-winning rapper's first date in his DAMN. album tour of New Zealand. She gives her verdict.

Kendrick Lamar performing in Boston as part of his DAMN. Tour

Kendrick Lamar performing in Boston as part of his DAMN. Tour Photo: Wikimedia Commons

To me Kendrick Lamar’s albums are headphone music. Hit play and together you dive into his world - the city of Compton, California. He’ll tell you about the difficulties, triumphs, contradictions, frustration and fears of an urban black American man. It’s immersive and palpable. His stories are very specific to his locale, and yet the appeal of his work is vast.

This is the third leg of Lamar’s DAMN. album world tour, which kicked off a year ago. Within that time his third major label album has cemented the 31-year-old rapper’s reputation as one of the unparalleled talents in contemporary music. Earlier this year DAMN. was awarded the  Pulitzer Prize for Music.

READ: The Sampler's review of DAMN.

But last night wasn't about the accolades or critical success. The first of Kendrick Lamar’s New Zealand dates was strictly for his fans, who were given a full set of all their favourite Lamar material spanning the last three to four releases.

The power of Lamar’s work lies in his ability to weave an evocative cinematic album experience through voice and sound. On DAMN., particularly, the production choices and collaborators work really well to underscore the stories he pulls apart, circles back and flips over. But in a live setting these voices, hooks and beats are Lamar’s backing track - he's the one who has to bring the songs to life.

Would these combined factors dilute the power of his music in front of 16,000 fans at Dunedin’s Forsyth Barr Stadium?  Would the intimacy of Kendrick’s world be lost in that vast space?

Kung Fu Kenny exploded onto the stage in a stylised martial arts uniform. He was ready for battle, flexing his nimble rhymes and agile flow. He may not be directly in my ears, but he is onstage in the flesh.

The concert opened as the album itself with 'DNA.', 'ELEMENT.' and then the instrumental beginnings of 'YAH.' At this point, the show moved to some of Lamar’s previous hits from his Grammy Award-winning To Pimp A Butterfly.

Lamar’s vocal delivery remained strong and clear throughout the show.  He was front and centre of the production, with his band stationed almost in the wings. The band were occasionally visible onscreen but remained obscured and unintroduced.

Being a hip hop show, a rapper can rely on the call-and-response technique with the crowd, and it is this which is Lamar’s greatest asset to overcome any reliance on the backing track. His fans know every single word to every single song, and they will sing them back to their idol word for word, again and again if he asks them to.

Throughout the set the crowd never stopped bouncing and dancing to Lamar’s music. It was an unusual sight - an audience maintaining its enthusiasm for an entire set. 

The lyrics of 'HUMBLE.' say 'sit down', but for the length of the concert, the crowd were on their feet.

One especially poignant moment was during 'HUMBLE.', the hit song from DAMN., where the Dunedin Forsyth Barr crowd rapped the two verses and choruses a cappella, leaving the rapper noticeably impressed by his southernmost fans. To which he then performed it in full for them.

Lamar also paid tribute to his fellow TDE (Top Dawg Entertainment) artists with performances of Schoolboy Q’s 'Collard Greens' and 'All The Stars' from the Black Panther Soundtrack compiled by Lamar. Travis Scott’s 'Goosebumps' was very well received by the crowd.

Between songs Lamar used video clips featuring himself as a kung-fu fighter in a stylised kitschy martial arts movie. This seemed an appropriate device for the self-confessed antisocial extrovert, who had a warm rapport with crowd, especially when he implored the front rows to look out for one another.

For many of his younger fans the Dunedin show was their first ever concert experience. There were high school and university students, professional couples, parents on date night and everyone in between at the show. 

Usually at concerts of this size there is a uniformity to an artist’s fanbase. There is a sameness in the fashions, ethnic backgrounds, age or background of an audience that give a tribal unity to the live concert experience.  

I have to conclude that at this Kendrick Lamar concert there is no typically identifiable Kendrick fan other than their shared love of the stories told by a kid from Compton.

Kendrick Lamar commands the stage with his music and his words, which thousands of fans chant back loyally, with almost perfect timing. There is no doubt this is an artist in his ascendancy. 

Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. Tour plays Auckland Spark Arena on Thursday 19th July and Friday 20th July. Tickets are still available.