If you’ve been paying attention to the trajectory of Kendrick Lamar’s career, you know that this has been the year of “Kung Fu Kenny,” an alter ego the rapper birthed with his 2017 album “DAMN” (as a nod to a character played by Don Cheadle in the movie “Rush Hour 2”).
Kung fu-outfitted breakdancers figured heavily in his stunning opening number at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday night, when he paired “DAMN” hits “DNA” and “HUMBLE” in a 5 1/2-minute medley; and just 48 hours later, “Kung Fu Kenny’s” rise to power provided the Wu Tang Clan-esque framework for the concert Lamar staged Tuesday night at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center.
But frankly, the 30-year-old Dr. Dre protege who currently wears the “best rapper alive” crown didn’t need the faux kung fu movie playing in the background, or the costumed ninja shadow-fighting in the foreground, or the kooky kung fu sound effects.
Mildly entertaining? Sure. Necessary to efforts to hold our attention? Hell no.
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All Kendrick Lamar needs is a microphone, and speakers powerful enough to amplify his voice so it can be heard clearly by the people up in the nosebleed sections.
In fact, I’d read that his tour takes a less-is-more approach to staging, so that’s actually what I had kind of mentally prepared for: Lamar and a mic.
From the start, though, the proceedings had a decidedly big-budget feel – the show opened with a montage of chopsocky-inspired video clips; followed by a surprise explosion loud enough to startle security guards; then the headliner appeared, wearing a yellow jumpsuit straight out of a Bruce Lee movie; then he ripped into “DNA,” with white lasers illuminating him from the side and a row of huge fireballs erupting from the floor behind him.
If there was anything minimalist about it, it was that the band remained hidden from view all night, and that he dispensed with backup dancers almost entirely. Instead, he had backup ninjas ... although they made infrequent appearances. One accosted him with a fake sword during “DNA,” while two sparred after he receded into the stage following another “DAMN” cut, “LOYALTY.” (Turns out they were creating a distraction so he could get back to a tiny “B” stage, nearer the soundboard, where he did “LUST” and an “older” track – 2012’s “Money Trees.”)
Also, after changing costumes and returning to the main stage – for the second half of the show, he wore all red, save for a pair of black Nikes (he’s got a new shoe deal with the company, by the way) – Lamar performed “XXX” eight feet in the air, suspended horizontally over a similarly sideways female martial artist.
Seriously, though: Raise your hand if you were there Tuesday night and would have been perfectly content just listening to a master lyricist spit some of the most masterful rhymes of the 21st century, minus any frills.
A smash-hit song like the bow-down-to-me anthem “HUMBLE,” for instance, needs nothing more than a legion of fans who know every word to make it worthy of being performed not once, but twice – first by the crowd, and then with crackling authority by Lamar.
(And let me just state for the record, by the way, that I’m a veteran of many hip-hops concerts, and as I type this out, I can’t think of one I’ve seen that’s been better. I only pick at nits here because fawning endlessly could get boring, fast.)
The only thing I was a little surprised his 80-minute set was missing – besides, perhaps, at least one song from his 2011 debut “Section.80” – was a bit more acknowledgment of Things That Are Going On In The World Right Now.
I mean, he has plenty to say about the state of the world in several songs he included in his setlist, like “XXX” (a musing on America’s obsession with war), or “Alright” (which champions Black Lives Matters), or even “Swimming Pools” (which tackles alcohol addiction).
But other than briefly nodding at Hurricane Harvey before the night’s final song, “GOD” – “We gonna do this one for the families out there in Houston that’s goin’ through it right now, you know what I’m talkin’ about?” – Lamar was mum on anything topical or political. Charlottesville, for instance. Or President Trump.
Of course, the rapper has said in interviews that you probably won’t catch him going there.
“It’s like beating a dead horse,” he recently told Rolling Stone. “We already know what it is. ... It weighs you down and it drains your energy when you’re speaking about something or someone that’s completely ridiculous.”
That said, he’s no dummy. Read the interview; this guy calculates everything.
So when he picked fellow Compton, Calif. rapper YG as his opener, there’s no doubt Lamar knew that at some point in his set – probably right at the end – YG would bring out a Donald Trump impersonator to spew cartoonishly racist messages before chasing him off with what’s been his most popular live hit for quite awhile now:
“F--- Donald Trump.”
Kendrick Lamar setlist
3. “King Kunta”
4. “untitled 07 | 2014 - 2016”
5. “Mask Off” (Future cover)
6. “Collard Greens” (ScHoolboy Q cover)
7. “Swimming Pools (Drank)”
8. “Backseat Freestyle”
11. “Money Trees”
13. “m.A.A.d city”
16. “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”