At this point, it's no secret that Kendrick Lamar's live sets have leaned heavily on 2012 standout good kid, m.A.A.d city. Consequence of Sound noted that it seems like he's intentionally shying away from 2015's critically-acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly. Caitlyn White at Stereogum also posed the following question: "Of course, To Pimp a Butterfly was a studio-heavy album with an extensive cast of collaborators, but most rappers perform over a pre-recorded track anyway—why not do that?"
Well, Kendrick Lamar is not "most rappers," and he made that abundantly clear on the What Stage Friday evening at Bonnaroo. Other rappers can use pre-recorded tracks all they want; Kendrick doesn't do that, nor should he even attempt to fit into that mold. Drake took the main stage at Coachella all by his lonesome, and it didn't work. The pre-recorded track model is a shitty route to take on big stages, and Kendrick is only playing big stages now. What's the point of asking him to fit into a model that doesn't fit his music and style in the first place?
If anything is abundantly clear from his last two albums, it's this: Kendrick Lamar values composition, production, and narrative as much as he values lyrics and flow. These are all equally important cogs to the greater machinery.
Kendrick's live band is instrumental to the power behind his set. When they dropped into "Money Trees" to open up the night, it hit the audience square in the chest. The sound coming from the stage had booming lows and clarity everywhere else. These guys are a fine-tuned machine. You want Kendrick to just rap over a backing track? That would be thin and lazy. Kendrick's sound is on point, and his band continually set the bar for Kendrick to hit a home run each and every time.
And to stick with the baseball analogy, it was like Kendrick was batting off a tee. This comes easy to him, and he knows it. After a stellar cover of A$AP Rocky's "Fuckin' Problems," Kendrick simply strutted back and forth across the biggest stage at one of the biggest festivals in the country, saying nothing. The crowd started chanting his name, and Kendrick stood tall, looking like the most confident man in the world. He finally addressed the crowd: "I come back and do this shit all over again. I come back and do this shit all over again. I come back and do this shit all over again..." He was hammering us over the head with this line, over and over. He and his band then dove straight into "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe." Maybe this was some sort of nod to his critics who are clamoring for him to play more new shit, even if he has to compromise to do so. Maybe not. Either way, it was fitting, to say the least.
“I come back and do this shit all over again.”
Having a live band has other advantages. Kendrick only collaborates with highly talented artists and players—Thundercat, Flying Lotus, and George Clinton, to name a few. Kendrick's band is talented and tasteful. At times the set veers towards rap-rock territory, but it's never excessive to the point where it becomes cheesy (I'm looking at you, Linkin Park). The minor progression that propels the majority of "m.A.A.d. city" takes on a post-punk quality when the guitar lead comes to the front of the mix. When the synth takes over the progression, the song takes on a menacing quality reminiscent of Crystal Castles. On the final chorus, Kendrick allows his band to play with the movement of the progression, breathing even more life into the song. Simply put, Kendrick Lamar is not a backing track rapper.
But Kendrick Lamar isn't simply atypical. Kendrick Lamar is a generational talent. He's a cultural icon in the making, just like Kurt Cobain and Michael Jackson before him. Just before diving into "Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst," Kendrick asked his lighting director to "turn the lights off on stage." The stage transformed into a black square as he pleaded with the crowd: "Please believe this is gonna last forever." Kendrick will inevitably go down as one of the greats, and he knows it.
Sure, more new songs would be great, but Kendrick is a storyteller. He himself called good kid, m.A.A.d city a short film. If his albums are movies, then his live show is a stage play. He builds carefully constructed narratives, and he's not going to compromise by throwing in new material indiscriminately into his set. This is probably why he puts all of it at the end of his set, as he closed with a vibrant, celebratory sequence of "i," "Kung Kunta," "These Walls," and "Alright" - all tracks from To Pimp a Butterfly. He closes his set with exuberant resolution, a satisfying conclusion to the story he was weaving from the stage.
Kendrick's confidence right now is through the roof, and it's a joy to watch. He knows what he's doing, so quit asking him to change.
- Money Trees
- Backseat Freestyle
- The Art of Peer Pressure
- Swimming Pools
- Fuckin' Problems (A$AP Rocky cover)
- Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe
- Poetic Justice
- m.A.A.d city
- Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst
- These Walls
- King Kunta