Be it headlining the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, paying tribute to Virgil Abloh performing at Louis Vuitton, or at every step of The Big Steppers tour, Kendrick Lamar knows how to put on a show. From his early days, Lamar has always had a masterful command of delivering visceral vignettes through the alchemy of sound and vision, with intricate levels of world-building wordplay from his first mixtapes and freestyles, through to the sharp visuals that followed.
There’s “levels to it,” as he raps on “HUMBLE”, levels that are quite literally studied at university these days. And, like a teacher insisting a work should be consumed in the medium it was intended, Kendrick Lamar’s return as Mr. Morale on The Big Steppers tour makes the case for live performance as required reading. In tonight’s setlist, his latest album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers gets a new lease of life, a second chance for a record that broke rank with Lamar’s streak of “instant classic” records, dividing initial opinion in its denseness compared to previous releases.
It is precisely this stark simplicity that provides a powerful backdrop for Lamar’s latest, most introspective record to play out. The internal drama of what is essentially a therapy session (guided by Helen Mirren’s omnipresent voice) finds form in the clever application of age-old theatre tricks. That is: shadows of things that aren’t really there like the arrows in his back as he feels the weight of responsibility aimed at him (‘Count Me Out’), or to exaggerate the explosive exchange of barbs between Lamar and Taylour Paige (of A24’s Zola fame) on ‘We Cry Together’, and the chorus of voices in his head throughout appearing all the more ominous as anonymous spectral shadowy forms. Light has a chiaroscuro slant to it on this stage, equally beaming in moments of relief: for every James Turrell-like sunset they walk into at the end of ‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’, there’s also an isolating and unnerving spotlight on Lamar’s ventriloquist mini-me, who opens the show while his full-sized warm-blooded counterpart runs through ‘United in Grief’ with his back turned to play the piano.
Though a seemingly bizarre prop, the focal ventriloquist is hardly out of place when you consider the many guises Lamar has adopted to tell his stories over the years. “Once again, I go by the name of K.Dot, Kendrick Lamar, oklama, Mr. Morale,” Lamar recaps during his performance. In his focus on self-reflection on the path to enlightenment, Lamar is faced with splintered voices which when heard together paint a cumulative portrait of the artist: where he’s been, where he is, and where he wants to be. At 35, Lamar is far from the braggadocious teen that gave us ‘Backseat Freestyle’, but he still has all the audacity and nerve of a young K.Dot invoking “Martin had a dream,” and “I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower / So I can fuck the world for 72 hours,” on the same track.
Funnily enough, this still isn’t as jarring as the casual, wildly incongruous name-checking of ‘Baby Shark’ in a rap song as he contemplates his inherited “daddy issues” and generational trauma since he became a father on hiatus. These parental anxieties unravel on ‘Father Time’, while an ensemble cast of dancers dramatise everything from frustration at two years of writer’s block, to an all-clear COVID test taken in a contamination cube raised above the crowd — the repeated refrain of ‘Alright’ a mantra to psych yourself out of that isolation-leaning pandemic mindset.
Though deeply personal to Kendrick Lamar’s development as a man and artist in the time since his last tour, the live performance of Mr Morale & The Big Steppers uses the power of tried-and-true stage tricks to communicate the commonality at the heart of what he’s really saying. Together, the audience chafes with him against rigid constraints visualised in the separation of the stage into boxed zones that are eventually rendered fluid in the process of his movements throughout the night, so that we all feel the relief of collapsing the walls we have built inside our heads to find freedom and catharsis.
It’s a therapeutic overview of the timeline that has led us to this moment. With every interspersed reminder of Kendrick Lamar the artist past, present, and with eyes firmly on the future (building his legacy with creative agency pgLang, the strong “Family Ties” with his cousin, collaborator and occasional mirror Baby Keem), The Big Steppers tour offers fresh insight into the album as a document of this mercurial time for change.
Tickets for Kendrick Lamar’s forthcoming The Big Steppers UK tour are on sale now.