Before Kendrick Lamar’s New York stop on his Kunta’s Groove Sessions Tour last night, the show felt doomed. The short North American run had been billed as an intimate showcase, and indeed, Lamar was all set to perform at Webster Hall, a perfectly modest venue in comparison to his star power. Then, last Friday, it was announced the show would be moved to Terminal 5 — a venue with double the 1,500-person capacity of Webster’s Grand Ballroom (and with famously unfortunate sightlines). A concert that was supposed to show fan appreciation now had the potential to do the opposite.
Regardless of venue, there is always going to be some semblance of unpleasantness at a Kendrick show, none of which has anything to do with him or where he’s booked to perform. Despite his popularity and the frankness of his lyricism and media presence, Lamar is one of rap’s most misunderstood artists. Much of his power lies in the intricate narratives of his music and, at times, an outpouring of tangled and dysfunctional emotions. There has been (and there will, no doubt, continue to be) something moderately disturbing about seeing people treat a song like “Swimming Pools” like it’s a party anthem, not a meditation on alcohol abuse. There is a similar disconnect with regard to “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” which title you’ll see emblazoned on T-shirts, as if the song were about being carefree, not so consumed with care for your surroundings and the mental energy you might expend being around people who lack authenticity or a moral calculus similar to your own.
But good kid, m.A.A.d. city is not the focal point anymore — much of the critical discourse around his sophomore album, To Pimp a Butterfly, framed it as a momentous work, a collection of music about the time we are living in and about contemporary blackness. It’s what makes 3,000 people shouting, “This dick ain’t free” in unison feel both like a triumphant protest and a gathering of misguided folks who don’t want to read between the lines. The line comes from a spoken-word-hued interlude called “For Free?” that some people have chosen to
recognize as no more than MRA-riffing — i.e., not also hinged on the historical sexualization of black men (which felt especially harrowing last night following the reports of “racially motivated” sexual coercion of male students at Notre Dame) as well as a rejection of capitalism as it relates to artistic production.
That could be an overwrought reading of what a moment like that can mean, but one of Kendrick’s best qualities is that he offers identity-driven discourse, should you realize it or want to engage with it. Of course, another of his sharpest talents lies in his ability to craft a chorus or catchphrase that feels so compulsively celebratory, it’s impossible not to want to participate, even if its sentiments are hardly universal. Those hooks are part of what made last night’s show so undeniable. Lamar spoke about how music unites people of different backgrounds and experiences — and what he was communicating was in fact made especially potent by the tight cohesion of his four-piece backing band. The musicians, particularly the guitarist and bassist, were relegated to the outskirts of the stage — it would have been nice to see them get a little bit more action toward the center — but their skill set, respectively and as a group, outshone Kendrick’s still static stage presence — although it was a very welcome change from a setup like that of the stark Yeezus Tour stage, which seemed to swallow him whole.
Running through Butterfly, Lamar performed for almost two hours, occasionally relating to the audience how his life changed after the release of good kid. It’s hard to tell if Lamar actually likes performing, as he still does it with relative unease, but that might also have something to do with the freighted meatiness of his message. He is victorious because he can be hyper-lyrical without being pretentious and can turn a song about severe depression into five minutes of jubilation. The party that broke out during “i,” “The Blacker the Berry,” and, of course, “Alright” hailed not just from the bump of the tracks, but from the portrait they paint of modernity and the release one needs when dealing with such ugly realities while the world continues to deny so many truths. Ultimately, this negated whatever the show might have suffered for being relocated from Webster Hall to Terminal 5. And giving more people that opportunity to feel liberated for a few hours — or, perhaps, to hear something from Kendrick Lamar they hadn’t really understood before — well, so much the better.