Kendrick Lamar was amazing at a lot of things, but performing wasn’t one of them. I saw him in concert four times in four different cities between 2013 and 2015–spanning the formidable crest of “Good Kid M.A.A.D. City” through the burgeoning political importance of “Alright.” Every time I left feeling underwhelmed and frustrated. This virtuoso made impeccable records, but in concerts omitted dozens of words, trotted out aloof, hackneyed banter and failed to groove with his thrashing band.
Jimi Hendrix had “Are You Experienced,” but more importantly he had the Star Spangled Banner. Aretha had the Fillmore; James Brown had the Apollo. Kendrick looked like a legend at the Grammys on a TV set, for sure, but was too often an awkward, breathless mortal man in concert. How could he rise to icon status if he couldn’t be bothered to connect with his live audience?
That all changed for me last night, at the first Panorama Festival at Randall’s Island. (Macro note: it was great for the exact reason it might not succeed – there was plenty of room to breathe. Also, the tent situation was clutch, considering the 95 degree weather.) Kendrick delivered a classic live performance by dialing down his stern intensity and embracing his kooky soft edges; and more importantly, by accepting his status as not a rap star, but a protest icon.
His best work came with his newer songs – thornier B-sides that he never would have dared try even a year ago. (When I saw him at Outside Lands last year, he played only two cuts from “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which had been out for 5 months already.) He ripped through the defiant bebop torrent “For Free” and tiptoed around the charmingly distracted “For Sale.” Most astounding was “untitled 02,” rapped with more urgency than on record. He wheezed the tipsy-turvy blues melody, machine-gunned the triplet flow, then unleashed his Drake imitation at the end with winking bravado.
Kendrick wielded a newfound sense of musicianship, making it clear that he’s been paying attention during his jazzbro jam sessions with Terrace Martin and Robert Glasper. His longstanding touring band was quieter, more adventurous, and unafraid to let the pockets get a bit messy: the bassist ran wild on the effervescent “i.” Kendrick himself lent a new melody to the previously bleak “Money Trees,” turning it into something of a call-and-response spiritual. And slight tweaking of rhythmic phrasing gave a sleepy “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” new vigor.
As Kendrick eased into his melodies, he authoritatively claimed his position as black America’s political mouthpiece. The images projected across the screens behind him were disparate: Barack Obama dancing; Nancy Reagan smiling menacingly; Ron Artest wilding out at the Malice at the Palace; George W. Bush tripping and smirking. But they formed a unique and powerful vision of America’s recent cultural history, that reflected Kendrick’s tumultuous yet optimistic lyricism. And instead of his usual hype-up cliches, which I heard four times before, he spoke poetically, of his responsibility as an artist, of how he gave voice to the people, and of how the people gave voice to him. “I’m gonna make sure the temperature is still right,” he reassured us, as the oppressive sun faded over the Manhattan skyline.
Towards the end of his set, he paid tribute to the victims of recent attacks “all over the world,” and then announced there was one song that he would play. He let the ambiguous words sink in, and after a few seconds, a chant began all over the crowd, first tentative and piecemeal. But soon it coalesced and roared into one:
WE GON BE ALRIGHT
WE GON BE ALRIGHT
And Kendrick looked out over the crowd, and then joined in, jubilantly, on a revolution he helped to pen.