Kendrick Lamar is sitting pretty. He's come out before an audience knowing that 'good kid, m.A.A.d city' has placed him firmly in the canon. He is now up there. He has made what is being roundly called a classic. The jury is in. The decision has been made. For better of worse, there's nothing to be added. A classic. Deal with it.
The record offers vignettes of Harlem life. Kendrick channels a cast of characters. He is Dickensian in style: the detail of the city being fleshed out across episodes. Furthermore there's an improbable confidence to Kendrick. He is skilled vocally, lyrically, creatively, and an immovable tone.
Standing front and centre Kendrick rattles off raps with a tight focus. He's chunky in build allowing his frame to offer the physical presence his vocals outline. He offers pathos that he's yet to make it big. He's crazy. If he hasn't made it who has? Unfortunately such a humble brag is flawed by the abject performance. One that falls between stools. He's trying to play it humble, that he's trying to prove himself, but he's handing mic duties to the audience, letting them finish. He's playing down his magnitude, but it's just him and a tour DJ. It's a half-baked performance schtick.
The sound system isn't flattering the beats whose claps are muffled, and the slow, creamy melodies fall flat. Beats that would otherwise entertain the duality of thug Honda speakers and lo fidelity laptop warbling. But when your audience is more interested in showing off their KL fanboy credentials than actually hearing the man it's going to make an energised event. One intoxicating, hypnotic, and beguiling. For many the entertainment isn't as dependent on the sound.
Lamar is a master at negotiating intonation and idiosyncratic couplets. 'The Art Of Peer Pressure' tells the tale of Lamar "smoking on the finest dope". The what would be industrial reverbed drones imagining the intensity of a hotbox. Drowning in a sea of bodies pogoing in the pit, the smell of skunk floating across the venue the venue comes alive.
Tonight it's the dichotomy of reception and sinner that bears over the show. "I am a sinner" is an ideal example as it occupies these positions - that of remorse and that of evil. That the idea of mischief appears to ring true. If you will. When you offer answer machine messages of concerned parents mouthing off about bad influences, dominoes, and getting home, there's going to be some concession in terms of drama. Because you're still just going to have Lamar front and centre in a grey sweater calmly racking off familiar lyrics.
That said, there's rare pleasure to be had watching a newly crowned King making a public exhibition of themselves. There's no joy in listening to his vocals butchered by a soundsystem, outgunned by Mancunians shouting EVERY VERSE.
Words by Samuel Breen
Photos by Duncan Elliott