IWe don’t hear much about it anymore, but like the ancient Greeks’ conception of the universe, hip-hop culture has four elements. Instead of fire, air, water, and earth, hip-hop features rapping, DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti. Over the years, rapping has obliterated the other three, while a potent combination of laziness and greed means most rappers are content to rely on personality and perceived authenticity, rather than attempting to elevate the art form to undreamed-of heights.
Innovation is now largely the preserve of hip-hop producers, today’s DJs, which is one of the reasons why hip-hop fans have fallen so hard for Kendrick Lamar over the last decade. Not only is 35-year-old Los Angeleno a technically impressive rapper, but unlike so many before him, he’s enjoying the opportunity that his status as the “greatest rapper alive” allows him to experiment with form, content and showmanship in a way the culture has never seen before.
That said, it’s possible that Lamar’s place in the canon isn’t very much on the minds of the cheerful teenagers and 20-somethings who make up the bulk of tonight’s audience. Hardly any of them would have finished their Highers when Lamar’s breakthrough album good kid, maAd city came out in 2012. Some of them hadn’t even reached that stage for the Dam tour five years ago. What everyone is very clear about is that this opening night of the UK leg of Lamar’s Big Steppers tour is the most exciting thing to happen in Scotland, and possibly the world. , since then.
The crowd has good reason. Like Lamar’s main Glastonbury slot last summer, this is a majestically constructed and choreographed spectacle, revamped for an arena setting. The mirror in which – on stage at Glastonbury – he intensely sought his inner flaws has disappeared, replaced by a giant cube of white muslin used for projections, dramatic silhouettes and similar light effects. There is also a secondary stage, almost as large as the main stage, connected by a long, lighted walkway that extends two-thirds into the stands. As far as hip-hop tradition goes, it’s closer to kabuki than Ice Cube – incredibly stylized and formal, but never feeling heavy or overly rehearsed.
The metal crown of thorns Lamar wore at Glastonbury and on this year’s cover Mr Morale and the big step by step is also absent – he is simply dressed in black, from hoodie to glove and boots, either on the stage in war-ready positions or motionless while 11 dancer-apostles, four women in white and seven men in black, drift on and off stage to help present various tableaux. On the surface, it’s pretty simple, big stage fare, but it all works. Dam‘s Lust gives us lover Lamar, prostrate on a stage bed with claustrophobic lighting and white-clad dancers circling the bed at the cardinal points. Ok, from 2015 Pimp a butterfly, is carried out from a Covid-secured sorting plastic cage that appears out of nowhere on the second stage. It is a remarkable adventure playground of a set, full of tricks and wonders.
Songs of Mr. Morale which on the album sound fuzzy, with overly complicated beats and flow switches, are tightened up with brutal economy for the arena. We get key bars, verses and hooks from songs like the grueling relationship drama We Cry Together or Purple Hearts, reducing the material to the best and most efficient version of itself. A classic like Swimming Pools (Drank) might be a little short-circuited by this truncated approach, entrusted to the crowd to sing/rap/sing, but Lamar has often spoken about how the meaning of these older songs has evolved to him over the years. the years and it is perhaps the recognition that they no longer belong to him, certainly not in the way the Mr. Morale the songs do.
As for the music, it seems odd at first that there’s no indication of where it might come from other than the upright piano Lamar occasionally plays, but the groping bass and icy certainty of the whipcrack drums subsumes everything, as the the spectacle’s grand theater completely envelops the almost hysterical, constantly moving crowd. It’s worth noting that Lamar doesn’t need a hype man or a band to foment fans, especially over an apocalyptic arrangement of Humble and an unreasonably exciting Backseat Freestyle. But when supporting artist Baby Keem (cousin of Lamar) returns for three songs towards the end, the mini moshpits that have massed and dissolved all night collapse into a giant mega mosh pogo that briefly threatens to completely derail the concert. A few minutes later, everything is really over. Everyone staggers out of the arena, physical exhaustion offset by mental elation, pretty sure they’ve just seen the greatest hip-hop show of all time.