Kendrick Lamar and the Wesley Theory
With Jay Rock
South Side Ballroom, Dallas
Thursday, October 29, 2015
Kendrick Lamar wasn't even on stage last night for the most memorable part of his visit to South Side Ballroom — and that's saying something. As the Compton rapper and his backing band, the Wesley Theory, took their break before the encore, the crowd took over. Knowing what song was coming next, they broke into a chant: We gon' be alright. We gon' be alright. We gon' be alright.
Lamar re-emerged with his band, a grin fixed to his face, and he paced the stage as the chant continued. Soon he started conducting the room, gesturing for one side of the room to be quiet while the other continued the chant, then instructed everyone to get loud and then to get whisper quiet. This went on for more than five minutes before Lamar finally walked up to the mic, exclaimed, "YOLO!" and then kicked into the final song of the night, "Alright."
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There couldn't have been a more fitting end to a night that saw Lamar hold the crowd in the palm of his hand from the very beginning. Whether it was the chorus to "Backseat Freestyle" or, well, all of "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe" (really, all of the good kid, m.A.A.d. city songs in particular), the crowd was rapping along with his every word, often with arms raised in the air or pogoing along in place — or both. Lamar may be the biggest rapper in the world right now (whose name isn't Drake), with the best album of 2015, but he went out of his way to make everyone a part of the show — or, as he put it, to impress the fact that, "We all motherfucking Kendrick Lamar."
Not exactly, of course. Lamar kicked off Thursday's show with the gnarliest rapping off this year's To Pimp a Butterfly, the machine-gun barrage of "For Free?" Most people, rappers or otherwise, would struggle to even hold their breath long enough to deliver those verses, much less do so with the cadence and crescendo of Lamar. From that song forward, the show revealed his innate skill, not only as a rapper but also as a band leader and showman.
Playing with a live band is nothing new for Lamar; he did so the last time he played Dallas, opening for Kanye West at American Airlines Center. His new Kunta's Groove Sessions tour builds the live band approach into the lounge-act vibe of its "intimate shows," which included a neon "Pimps Only" sign that hung onstage. Granted, it was less intimate than it might have been, given that, until the morning of the show, it was scheduled to take place in the smaller South Side Music Hall (and the Ballroom was less than full). Regardless, Lamar, echoing at times D'Angelo's frenetic show last summer at The Bomb Factory, ping-ponged between the four musicians in his band, shouting commands and toying with the crowd, stopping and starting songs at will and in turn ratcheting up the energy in the room.
While the live band approach, however well-honed it's become, may not be new, it's hard to imagine the songs from Butterfly being delivered any other way. Yes, the album was recorded with live instrumentation, but more important, the songs thrive on the spontaneity of Lamar's inspiration, which a DJ and pre-recorded tracks would only get in the way of. He also has a way of zigging when the playbook suggests he should zag; with all the guitar solos and extended jams, this show was often as close to heavy metal as it was hip-hop (and it usually split the difference with funk).
The one drawback was that sometimes the brute force got in the way of the nuance. Both m.A.A.d. city and Butterfly are such conceptually tight albums that translating all of their emotional resonance to a live setting would be exceptionally difficult. After all, it's not just the "King Kuntas" that make Butterfly; it's also the gut-wrenching introspection of the spoken-word interludes. Even "For Free?" set up that contrast: On record, it re-contextualizes jazz in hip-hop, moving away from the cool, measured vibe of A Tribe Called Quest to something more furious and unhinged, like a Charles Mingus solo reincarnated as a freestyle. The music itself plays as social commentary. Live, it was the groove that took over, which left Lamar to make those same points with his words alone.
Fortunately, those words do plenty on their own, and Lamar built the night toward a climax by interspersing a closing run of songs that included "Momma," "i" and "The Blacker the Berry" with some heart-to-heart talks with the audience. "My life did a complete 360 in six months. Imagine what that does to your psyche," he said, referring to events since the release of Butterfly. "I'm the head of the household, of my entire family, my history." The history he referred to wasn't just his, or even his family's; it was the struggles that have rocked this country, not just in 2015 but all the way back to its beginnings, when one person could sell another into slavery — the same struggles that bleed through every pore of Lamar's music.
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Those struggles, and Lamar's music, aren't just his. "I can't do this shit alone," he insisted. And he was right; his fans could do it without him. Which is the sign of a first-rate leader.
Swimming Pools (Drank)
Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe
Complexion (A Zulu Love)
How Much a Dollar Cost
The Blacker the Berry