Secret Meeting score: 93
by Philip Moss and Phil Scarisbrick
Kendrick Lamar is an artist in the ascendancy. From 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City right through to last year’s DAMN., his records have connected with audiences and critics alike. His ability to weave complex tales and expose his darkest fears and feelings, coupled with an impeccable flow, has led to him being not only one of the most important hip-hop artists of the last decade, but one of the most important of any genre (he was even name checked by Tony Visconti as being the main influence on David Bowie’s final record, Blackstar). Currently, he in the midst of a sell-out European arena tour in support of DAMN. so we went along to the Manchester Arena to check it out.
Rising through the lush, white stage floor, surrounded by smoke and lasers, the first glimpse of Lamar sent the Mancunian audience into meltdown. Before this, we’d been shown the first of many Wes Anderson inspired video segments in which he embodied the role of DAMN.‘s narrator, Kung-Fu Kenny. Even before the music started, the tone had been set that this was more than just a concert, it was a show. The opening of DNA. set the party atmosphere and had the entire crowd reciting every word verbatim. Ending the song with a faux-kung fu battle with a sword-wielding foe, Japanese imagery dominates the opening salvo.
Commanding the stage as a lone presence, Lamar completely owned it. Huge screens both behind and above added to the narrative of the ‘Kung-Fu Kenny Show’. ELEMENT. continued the intensity set by DNA., inspiring a call and answer back-and-forth with the audience. To Pimp A Butterfly’s lead single King Kunta saw the sea of people on the arena floor turn into a tidal wave of arms as again, he exchanged lines with his adoring mob.
Throughout, and again fitting stylistically with the over-arching martial arts narrative, Lamar set the audience a series of disciplines. ‘Who’s day one Kendrick Lamar fans?’ he questioned, as he tested the audience on their ability to join in first with Swimming Pools (Drank), and then Collard Greens – a track he lent vocals to as part of a 2014 collaboration with ScHoolboy Q. And clearly impressed he stated, ‘This is the greatest city in the world!’ after the Mancunian crowd performed to black belt standard.
Exiting the stage to the intro from FEEL., Lamar reappeared on a small stage in the centre of the arena. Knelt in the middle as a four-sided waterfall of lights rise around him, he delivered another DAMN. highlight in LUST. before rising to the top himself for Money Trees. Returning to the main stage for U2 duet XXX., m.A.A.d City and PRIDE., he then invited the whole audience to illuminate the arena with their phones as mutual show of appreciation before launching into LOVE.
On to the final leg, we travelled through the last three studio albums in his collection with a frenetic Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe building through the anthemic Alright to perhaps, somewhat expectedly, the biggest response of the night: for his recent triple Grammy winner, Humble. Starting the song himself, the audience then took over a capella, and word for word the 16,000 strong crowd leave the man speechless. Giving the sense that the ongoing relationship between artist and fans is one of mutual adoration.
After a brief interlude to catch our breath, Lamar inconspicuously returned to the stage for his encore with no fanfare, flames or fireworks, and addressed the audience with genuine humility. Hip-hop is renowned for its bravado, especially among those at the top of the tree. But Kendrick Lamar is like no other hip-hop star. Looking like every ounce of energy had been burnt off during the main set, he managed to dig into his reserves for one final song: an emotionally-charged rendition of GOD. that felt like a pastor and his congregation in mutual celebration. The perfect finale to a phenomenal show.
While Manchester’s vast musical heritage may be more closely associated with alternative guitar-based music, this is a city that knows a rock n roll star when it sees one. Kendrick Lamar transcends genres – he’s a star, not a hip hop star. Unlike Manchester’s most famous musical sons, Lamar has a quiet, unassuming, humbleness about him. And as the opening film stated just before he took to the stage, ‘Kung Fu Kenny has studied the greats’. Tonight, he proved he’s ready to join them.
Love Kendrick? Check our our review of DAMN. here.