Kendrick Lamar has gone on tour with an expensive-sounding English therapist. She is none other than Helen Mirren, whose pre-recorded voice rang out in the O2 Arena throughout the set, confronting the Californian rapper with therapeutic interventions about his behaviour. Or rather, the behaviour of his alter ego, Mr Morale, the central protagonist in the morality play that hip-hop’s most intrepid star has devised for The Big Steppers tour.
Its setlist is similar to his triumphant headline appearance at Glastonbury this summer, although the staging is different. His festival show was more of a passion play with Christian themes of suffering and redemption involving a crown of thorns and much sacrificial shedding of blood. In contrast, his touring show presents him in a psychological context involving ventriloquism and mirrored identities, like an extended version of the analytic hour. The same message holds true, however. What is at stake, amid the pyrotechnic explosions and entertain-us atmosphere of the arena circuit, is the struggle to be a better person.
The first of three London dates began with 11 dancers lining up on a long lit-up catwalk that extended into the audience. The men wore black, the women white. The main stage was concealed by a set of curtains, like a vast box, which rose to reveal a scene of darkness. A lamp suddenly came on, like the flare of Harry Lime’s match in a Vienna doorway in The Third Man. It revealed the figure of Lamar sitting at an upright piano. He was dressed in black and wore glasses. A ventriloquist’s dummy that looked like him was placed on top of the piano.
His opening number was “United in Grief”, the first song on his latest album Mr Morale & The Big Steppers. “The world that I’m in is a cul-de-sac,” he rapped, playing a simple piano melody that tenaciously picked a way through a convulsive barrage of beats. Then he headed to a microphone stand on the catwalk stage to perform “N95”, also from the new album, while holding the ventriloquist’s dummy. Its mouth moved up and down as Lamar rapped about social and personal breakdown, a world in which rap celebrity was portrayed as a false register of African-American success in a materialistic society scarred by racism.
“Can I vent all my truth?” he rapped. He had a single glove on his left hand, a nod to the complicated entertainment legacy of Michael Jackson — but also as if the other glove had been cast down as a challenge. Lamar has taken hip-hop’s traditional onus on truth-telling, on keeping it real, and turned it into a highly stylised act of theatre about self-understanding. The challenge was willingly accepted by a fervent audience, who rapped along to back catalogue favourites such as “m.A.A.d city” and serenaded Lamar by singing his name between songs.
The dancers did exaggerated running on the spot routines, marching to stand still. Occasionally they ringed Lamar in circles and squares, illustrating the idea of his being boxed in. For “Mirror”, he rapped inside an actual box, which was raised into the air and filled with smoke. Back on terra firma, he emerged from it to be presented by his support act and cousin Baby Keem, who stood facing him at the other end of the runway, also dressed in black, like a mirror image of Lamar. The pair proceeded to do three of Keem’s tracks, rowdy affairs that sent the moshpits into a frenzy.
A set of backing musicians stood on one side of the main stage, adding a live element to the beats, which were both loud and vividly textural. “DNA” had a metallic jingling sound, like the bars of a cage, while “King Kunta”’s funk was amplified to industrial volume. Lamar rapped quickly, words twisting and turning in a rapid cascade of verses, a quicksilver presence. At times he crouched down, hand on knee, the other hand holding the microphone to his mouth, a rap version of Rodin’s “The Thinker”.
Lamar’s mix of cerebrality and showmanship is unmatched by any of his contemporaries. “Can you stay out of the box?” Mirren’s voice asked at the end. According to this gig, the answer has to be yes.
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