Kendrick Lamar rewrites the rules of the rap show

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What comes next when a musician already has legions of fans, buckets of money, a handful of platinum albums, shelves full of Grammys and even a Pulitzer Prize?

By his own account, Kendrick Lamar was “goin’ through somethin’” for 1,855 days — the time between his last two albums — trying to figure that out. On this year’s “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” the answer was introspection and vulnerability. But on Thursday night at Capital One Arena, Lamar turned his most inward album outward, changing the questions just when it seemed like audiences had the answers.

While concertgoers expecting a parade of old favorites might have been disappointed, those who have watched attentively and listened closely to Lamar’s decade-long journey were treated to a theatrical spectacle that rewrote the rules of the rap show in the same way that Lamar has rewritten the rules of rap itself.

The first sign that this concert would not be like other arena-ready affairs came early. A curtain rose to reveal a bare stage as 10 of the album’s “big steppers” emerged from below a runway in the middle of the crowd: men in black suits, women in white ones.

After a bit of gentle choreography, Lamar sat at a piano and was joined by a twin ventriloquist’s dummy, a Lil’ Kenny reminiscent of the Lil’ Penny Nike ads of Lamar’s youth. The full-size Lamar rapped along with the miniature version for a couple songs in one of the night’s many artistic embellishments and the first but not last time Lamar would be in conversation with himself.

The new album from Kendrick Lamar feels vulnerable and virtuosic

As with his albums, onstage, Lamar continued his conversation with the musical titans that preceded him. Wearing a black military suit adorned with medals and paired with sequined shades, an earring and one glove, the rapper combined iconic looks from both Michael and Janet Jackson, a fitting choice for the man in the mirror who was firmly in control all night. He even had his own windup soldier dance moves, subtle complements to the stepping, swag surfing and spiraling performed by his dance troupe.

On the microphone, Lamar’s staccato, jackhammer flow was impeccable, his syllables as precise and piercing as when recorded. At times, he even flashed an impressive singing voice, though, perhaps it’s no surprise that someone with such mastery of his instrument can shift from rapping to singing as easily as an automatic car changes gears. And while the vocal notes were the attraction, Lamar seemed just as content to dwell in dramatic pauses that were pregnant with the crowd’s adulation (and likely gave him a chance to take it all in and catch his breath).

Along with the requisite pyrotechnics and spotlights, Lamar embraced visual elements to help tell his stories: projections on a curtain resembled shadow puppets of sharks, angels, the couple from his divisive “We Cry Together” skit and — in place of the six guns aimed at him in the lyrics of “Count Me Out” — six arrows piercing his silhouette’s skin. Taken together, the artistic flourishes demanded the crowd’s attention, through their eyes and not their camera phones. As he rapped on “Element,” “I don’t do it for the ’Gram.” It’s clear he didn’t want the crowd to do it for Instagram, either.

Not that certain moments wouldn’t be great to share with the wider world. At one point, Lamar was encased in a plastic cube alongside four dancers in hazmat suits, one of whom “administered” a coronavirus test right before he launched into “Alright.”

The song, which has found a second life as a protest anthem, was a familiar crowd-pleaser on a set dominated by Lamar’s new album. Old favorites such as the blustering “Backseat Freestyle” and the antagonistic fire starter “m.a.a.d. city” are still powerful but are starting to show their age. When Lamar let the audience sing along to his older hits, it was as if he was giving those songs away to the crowd. He’s just about done with them now.

To paraphrase Jay-Z, if you want Lamar’s old stuff, buy his old albums. These days, Lamar seemed more concerned with the personal dialogue on “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” with agonizing questions (“If I told you who I am, would you use it against me?”) and bittersweet realizations (“I choose me, I’m sorry”).

As Lamar closed his set with “Savior,” he looked toward the crowd and asked, “Are you happy for me?” Judging by the Cheshire grin across his face as he descended below the stage, Lamar knows the answer and is ready for the next question.




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