Concert review: Kendrick Lamar at LC Pavilion

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Storms raged both in the skies and in the music when Kendrick Lamar visited the LC Pavilion outdoors for a sold-out concert on Saturday.

Against a backdrop of intermittent raindrops, the Compton, California rapper, performing here as part of his Kunta's Groove Sessions - a mini-tour set in significantly smaller venues than the arenas he'll visit later this year - worked his way through a number of dense, knotty tracks where he confronted everything from racial politics ("Alright," with its mentions of police violence, could've functioned as a rallying cry at a Black Lives Matter protest) to internal strife on unflinchingly self-critical cuts like "i."

"I've been dealing with depression ever since an adolescent" he admitted on the latter, a musically uplifting tune that also found him repeating the line "everybody lack confidence" like a man wholly at ease sharing this accumulated scar tissue.

Introducing "Hood Politics," one of the standouts on To Pimp a Butterfly, the rapper's third full-length and one of the best albums to surface this year, Lamar discussed how his perspective shifted after he ventured out of Compton only to encounter the same poverty, corruption and prejudice spread around the globe. "This shit is much bigger than where I come from," he said, and his new material reflects this expanding viewpoint.

Before making his way east to Washington, D.C. - "Hood Politics" equated governance with a turf war between "Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans" - Lamar logged serious time in his hometown. The rapper dedicated the first 50 minutes of the 75-minute concert to material culled from his sophomore album, good kid, m.A.A.d. city, from 2012, with brief forays into his 2011 debut Section.80 ("A.D.H.D."), as well as a sampling lifted from his guest spots on tracks by Jidenna ("Classic Man (Remix)") and Schoolboy Q ("Collard Greens"). Prior to the appearance of Butterfly track "King Kunta," which arrived well past the set's midway point, the album's presence was restricted to a blink-and-you'll-miss-it name-drop on the well-heeled "Classic Man."

In that sense, much of the concert functioned as a reprise of Lamar's headlining slot at the Breakaway Festival in 2013 - "It's been a couple years since we've seen each other … and we're going to do it like we never left," he said, a promise he held to with utmost devotion - with the select Butterfly tracks that fluttered into the set's back half serving notice of the rapper's increased lyrical potency and musical fearlessness.

While Butterfly adopts a worldly perspective, good kid plays like feature film set in a single neighborhood, tracing the day-to-day toll life in Compton can exact on a person. On "m.A.A.d. city," Lamar described "walls of bullets" and "bodies on top of bodies," conjuring images of victims piled up like corkwood, while "Sing About Me" functioned as a eulogy of sorts, with the rapper asking the audience to keep his name alive after his passing.

Despite the music's sometimes-heavy themes, Lamar, backed solely by a DJ, carried himself with an innate lightness. He bounded his way through booming tracks like "Backstreet Freestyle," a series of teenage boasts set to a King Kong-sized, chest-thumping beat, and revealed his softer side on the heaving "Poetic Justice," an open-hearted love song built around a velvety sample of Janet Jackson's "Any Time, Any Place."

Between songs, Lamar excelled in the role of hype man, exhorting the audience to match his intensity and repeatedly thanking fans for the support they've given him from day one. At one point, the MC even invited a pair of particularly ebullient attendees onstage, offering each a chance to perform one of his songs - call it Kendrick-oke rather than karaoke - a situation that started as charming and gradually grew tedious as one of the gentlemen refused to cede the microphone, taking time out from the concert to lobby Lamar for a label deal. It was the only instance where the audience openly jeered, and had it stretched on much longer the individual might have been subject to some of the same invectives hurled at Cersei Lannister during her fifth season "Game of Thrones" shame walk.

Lamar, for his part, took the entire scene in stride. The rapper joked that he should retire backstage and let the youngster take over for the evening, and allowed him the opportunity to spit a few original bars before stepping in to reclaim the microphone for a ferocious "King Kunta."

"Don't want you … sittin' in my throne again," he growled at the song's onset, which was probably coincidental, but still felt right - the sound of a king reclaiming his rightful place at the fore.