By Stanley Collins
The first time I saw Kendrick Lamar he got booed. Now, it’s important to mention that this was before he won 7 Grammy Awards (or was even nominated for a Grammy), had any multi-platinum selling albums, or a headlining tour. Kendrick Lamar was fresh off releasing his first album Section.80, in 2011, and was touring across the country, playing small venues, clubs, and making college visits. And, that fall, Kendrick Lamar paid a visit to my college’s homecoming. While he was a talented and skilled rapper, much of his acumen hadn’t yet translated to the stage. In addition to being a fairly new act, Lamar had the challenge of going up against artists like Ace Hood (remember him? Hustle Hard ring a bell?), and other local acts that were more geared toward the 19-year old turn up. But, for me, I was all in. The IPO was ripe, and I knew he’d grow, but no one expected for Kendrick to go where he’s gone so far.
Kendrick Lamar is a long way from playing college homecomings in gyms with bad acoustics. Fast forward six years later, and here we are – DAMN. Following the release of his critically acclaimed album earlier this year, Lamar’s set out on a world tour. On Wednesday, July 19th Lamar made his tour stop by Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center.
Lamar opened the night with a short film portraying him as a young student, studying with a Kung Fu master, who tasked Lamar with bringing the flow back; identifying him as the chosen one. Lamar’s been reliant on this theme in music videos and live performances since the release of his album, taking on the alter ego of “Kung Fu Kenny.” In essence, it’s an ode to Kung Fu-inspired Hip-Hop like GZA and the Wu Tang Clan. At the conclusion of the film, the Kung Fu Master charges Lamar with finding the glow. As the lights were brought down, and smoked filled the stage, an explosion went off, and Lamar rose from under the stage. Crouching for a few seconds, the audience applauded, as a video segment from Fox News played, criticizing Lamar’s lyrics challenging police brutality. And in response to that video, Lamar performed DNA.
The DAMN. Tour is noticeably different from Kunta’s Groove Sessions, his previous tour in support of To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB). Lamar swapped theatres for arena’s; full band accompaniment for a trio (guitar, bass, drums) and DJ. And, while DAMN. and TPAB offer social critiques, self-reflection, and multi-layered storytelling, the wrapping is different. The arena setting for The DAMN. Tour, gave the opportunity for songs like Backseat Freestyle, Alright, Untitled 02 (Levitate, Levitate, Levitate), and m.A.A.d. city, to go to new heights, as the arena passionately sang and rapped along.
Lamar spent the majority of the night on the stage by himself, accompanied by two large screens that displayed images correlating with a given song. Incorporating high energy, passionate lyrics, Lamar was occasionally joined on stage by Samurai-lite choreography. Moving from the main stage, Lamar stood in the middle of the arena on a lit, black box performing songs like LUST. and Money Trees.
As the distorted guitar riff for HUMBLE. came through the speakers, the audience, in unison, sang “Nobody pray for me / Even a day for me / Way (yeah, yeah!)” and without even finishing the first verse, Lamar let the audience take the steering wheel, as he stood and smiled in amazement. After HUMBLE. Lamar briefly left the stage, and then returned to perform an encore – GOD. Lamar was sure to point out his day one fans, thanking the people in attendance for making it possible for him to be on stage, as well as thanking fans for their love.