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Kendrick Lamar Demonstrated Hip Hop's Purpose at American Airlines Center on Friday Night

Kendrick Lamar performed at Coachella this spring. No photography was allowed at the show Friday.EXPAND
Kendrick Lamar performed at Coachella this spring. No photography was allowed at the show Friday.
Mathew Tucciarone
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Kendrick Lamar
with Travis Scott and D.R.A.M.
American Airlines Center, Dallas
Friday, July 14, 2017

Rap’s in a good place in 2017, animated by a series of intensely fascinating figures. Young Thug is the moment’s experimentalist; the fiercely heady Vince Staples is rap’s chief fatalist; Kamaiyah and Princess Nokia are '90s archivists; Migos are the party anthem princes; Gucci Mane is the street-hardened hustler.

And that leaves Kendrick Lamar, the genre’s finest-tuned technician and sharpest philosopher, a young man with an old soul who can impart emotion and tell stories like no one else.

This notion of storytelling — of bottling moments and the feelings of a generation into three-minute songs — is what inspires Lamar’s fans, fans explained at the American Airlines Center on Friday night during the second date of the artist’s latest North American tour, during which D.R.A.M. and Houston native Travis Scott are supporting him.

“He’s lyrical — maybe the best ever; he tells a story every time,” one patron says.

There’s a devotional flavor in the way Lamar’s fans speak of him.

“There’s meaning behind everything he says,” one remarks. “He speaks for all us; he tells the world how it is.”

No one within earshot mentions Lamar’s principal touring partner, the immensely popular Scott. Five minutes into his set, he’s riding atop an honest-to-god robotic eagle, at least 10 times a real eagle's size. It’s gilded in faux gold and it has red lasers for eyes. Clouds of purple fog and blood-red mist bubble up from 50 feet below. A thousand contrasting rays of light criss-cross the air like a god-sized spreadsheet extending down from heaven.

After an unfairly muted reception to the estimably bright D.R.A.M., Scott sprints through fragments of his most popular singles — but just fragments because there’s normally only about 60 seconds of Scott bars in his songs. “Mamacita,” “the ends,” “coordinate,” “through the late night,” “90210,” “beibs in the trap,” “sweet sweet,” “outside,” "pick up the phone,” “Antidote,” Kanye West’s “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” and, of course, "goosebumps” all come and go.

Scott’s music is full of gorgeous sounds meeting at compelling angles, but he never seems to say anything. You might say he’s all shimmering surface, a master of million-dollar special effects and baroque, Tumblr-ready arrangements.
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When Lamar doesn’t emerge to fulfill his bars in "goosebumps," it feels like a missed opportunity. Scott’s multimedia spectacle, while fun, is ultimately a miniature shadow of the grand scale he’s known for.

The room is electric waiting for Lamar; the sense of awe has a quasi-religious quality to it. But then he emerges, and the collective mood cracks wide open. He starts off with a bang, both literally and figuratively. Following an ear-splitting pyrotechnic explosion, Lamar bursts into "DNA.,” the most pointed single from his recent LP, DAMN.

Against a backcloth of silky martial arts displays, dancing ribbons of light and kung fu film shorts featuring Lamar, the Compton, California, emcee pulls off a truly rare feat: live rap comparable to studio-recorded rap.

Even the most skilled emcees fall victim to the mechanics of touring. Breath control, the quirky timing of live sound, the physical nature of performing — all muddle the essential elements of rap: cadence, melody, enunciation. Somehow, Lamar is immune.

With the stadium literally shaking, Lamar breathes life into his choicest cuts: “ELEMENT.,” “King Kunta,” “Untitled 07,” Future’s “Mask Off” remix,” “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “Backseat Freestyle,” “LOYALTY.,” “BLOOD.,” “LUST.,” “XXX.,” “LOVE.,” “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “HUMBLE.,” FEEL.” and “GOD.” This set is your favorite Spotify playlist.

In an interview with VICE last year, Lamar spoke of “trying to spark an idea of positivity in the community” through honest storytelling. Almost a year later, in conversation with Rick Rubin for GQ, Lamar said “deeper connections through music with the listener” were the most important aspect of his art. “That’s what music is about for me. Period,” he said.

Onstage at the AAC, he says there’s “nothing but positive energy here.” Of course, Lamar’s right: This is what hip hop is about when it’s at its best. It’s about embodying something larger than life — not at the service of ego or pride, but to benefit those for whom hope and pride seem empty avenues. It’s a way of showing the impossible is attainable, that life really can imitate art.

Lamar closes by saying he loves the audience, and it comes off genuine. How he achieves this level of intimacy so quickly and in such a public space is something we’ll probably never understand. When hip hop lands like it did with Lamar tonight, there might as well be no other music on the planet.

If only hope and positivity could resonate as truly and purely as it did this evening, the world would be a more harmonious organism. If only for a night, Lamar — the world’s most financially successful poet — connected our city under one roof through the medium of rap music. DAMN.

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