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Kendrick Lamar review – rap's regal genius delivers a cliche-free knockout

Punchy and relentless … Kendrick Lamar at the 2017 MTV Video Music awards.
Breathtaking … Kendrick Lamar at the 2017 MTV Video Music awards. Photograph: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

A man garlanded with every honour going, from Grammy awards to a spot in Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world, Kendrick Lamar nevertheless seems a little taken aback by the response to his arrival in Dublin. “I heard y’all painted a picture of me on a wall,” he says. “No one’s ever done that before.” Indeed they had: no sooner had he landed than a vast mural of him appeared, towering over Aungier Street. Meanwhile, in the venue, the audience’s adoration is both rowdily intense and so word-perfect that when Lamar stops rapping and cuts the music during Humble, they carry an entire verse without flagging.

In fairness, they have a lot to be excited about. Lamar’s live show avoids most hip-hop gig cliches: at no point are all the ladies in the house required to scream, nor are we subjected to the reliable lowlight that is the lengthy demonstration of the DJ’s turntable skills. Instead, there’s a performance that is simultaneously understated and spectacular. Aside from the occasional brief appearance of a dancer or a man dressed as a ninja, there’s nothing to look at except for Lamar and a succession of films that seem more like edgy arthouse fare than anything you’d usually see at a sellout arena show.

At one point, Lamar ends up stalking the stage in front of a disturbing loop of video that cuts between a human embryo, underwater fauna and flora and some pretty gruesome close-up footage of eye surgery. Occasionally, the films are funnier than you might expect. As is often the way with artists whose music is taken very seriously indeed – both as a creative force and a socio-political statement – you don’t hear much about Kendrick Lamar’s goofy sense of humour, but it’s there in the fake kung-fu epic that intersects the show: Kung Fu Kenny Practises His Motherfuckin’ Skills.

For all his critical and commercial success, Lamar’s music seems an odd fit for a gig this size: it’s not ostentatious or showy, it tends towards self-examination, the music is complex and knotty, and his skills as a rapper are technical and subtle. But if anything, the inflation to arena scale seems to potentiate it, turning a track such as Untitled 07 – wilfully scattered and disjointed in its recorded form – into something insistent and anthemic. The sound is clear enough to get across how dazzling his lyrical talent can be and, relegated to a kind of makeshift orchestra pit at the side of the stage, his band weave around the beats and samples, not just navigating the tricky sonic twists and turns of DNA, but actively magnifying them. The overall effect is punchy and relentless. At the most gripping moments, they and he seem to perform almost without pause, one track after another virtually segueing into each other: an opening sweep of songs that concludes with King Kunta is breathtaking.

Indeed, it’s so powerful that the odd special effect feels besides the point, more distraction than attraction: the sole moment you feel the audience enthusiasm seem to dip is when Lamar appears to perform while floating horizontally above the stage.

The rest of the time, it’s unceasing bedlam. At one juncture, the crowd breaks out into the old “olé, olé olé olé” chant that Ireland fans have taken as their own ever since it was used on their 1990 World Cup squad’s official single. This feels a slightly peculiar thing to do at a hip-hop gig – it seems unlikely many English audiences have felt impelled to bellow Vindaloo by Fat Les at a visiting rapper – but it goes on and on, while Lamar’s expression shifts from its usual imperious poker face to mild confusion. Eventually, he smiles. “It’s love, y’all,” he decides.

This article titled "Kendrick Lamar review – rap's regal genius delivers a cliche-free knockout" was written by Alexis Petridis, for The Guardian on Thursday 8 February 2018 01.10pm

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