Genting Arena, Birmingham
Like the Wu-Tang Clan before him, Kendrick Lamar has incorporated kung-fu aesthetics into his art. Last year’s DAMN. album spawned the alias Kung-Fu Kenny (aka Black Turtle) and this subsequent show is tied together by a three-part short film that blends influences of blaxploitation and vintage martial arts movies. When the Compton rapper emerges onstage for opener DNA in black robes tonight, he’s soon joined by an agile sword-swinging ninja.
This is an arena rap show masterclass. With flame throwers, art house visuals, intense energy and clear vocal delivery, Kendrick Lamar commands the emotions of 15,700 fans. The setlist is centred around DAMN., but tracks from previous LPs provide a lot of highlights. King Kunta amps up the Friday night audience early in the set, the eerie untitled 07 is an unlikely crowd-pleaser and Money Trees is performed from an illuminated second stage that elevates from the middle of the arena.
That said, the gig isn’t without flaws. Lamar’s three-piece band are tucked away, ground-level, on the right of the stage, deliberately out of sight for the majority of the audience. It’s presumably to keep eyes on the Lamar and the minimal visuals, but 90 minutes is a long time to watch one performer – even a great one – and the sight of an energetic live band would have been welcome. And while the musicians successfully beef up the tunes, overzealous drum fills and guitar shredding occasionally clutter the song’s already-immaculate beats.
Tonight’s gig also takes place on the release date of the Black Panther soundtrack – a cohesive, adventurous project that essentially qualifies as a bonus Kendrick Lamar album. Considering the significance of the soundtrack and how excited his fans are about it, a celebration seems in order. But this is the DAMN. tour. It’s a tightly-rehearsed show with a carefully-curated concept, and so no acknowledgement of Black Panther is made. To guarantee a perfect performance, Lamar is sticking to the script.
His fans have rehearsed for this too. During the penultimate track Humble, Kendrick Lamar cuts the beat after a couple of bars so that the fans can rap the rest of it, then he wheels back the tune for another rendition. We’ve seen rappers let their audience finish off their best punchlines before – but an entire song? Only Kung-Fu Kenny could such achieve such a thing.