What does confidence look like?
In hip-hop, more often than not, it has been flashy. Lyrical and lifestyle boasts filled with swagger, excess and extravagance. Yet it wasn’t until relatively recently that artists’ live shows adopted the same ornamentation.
In 2013, Kanye West brought a 50-foot mountain to the Sprint Center. In 2016, Drake brought a sinewy, immersive light show. Future drowned himself in background dancers and obnoxious set pieces. Chance the Rapper came with life-size muppets.
So, of course, Kendrick Lamar, long hip-hop’s most stubborn contrarian, did the opposite.
For the majority of his flawless 90 minute set Wednesday at the Sprint Center, the rapper who fancies himself “King Kendrick” took the stage as a one-man army, unaccompanied by a band or DJ. It was an explicit implication: At this point in his career, Kendrick Lamar doesn’t think he needs help or spectacle. All Kendrick needs, all you need, is Kendrick.
He’s right. His the Damn Tour set, with its monumental minimalism, was a brilliant solidification of Lamar’s current unparalleled status in hip-hop and the best rap show the Sprint Center has seen in years.
His stage featured an eye-popping video board that alternated images of Chinese cinema and Asian art with interludes of Lamar’s comical short film “The Legend of Kung Fu Kenny.” At other times the backdrop would glide from neat 45-degree angles to hovering just above Lamar like a bedroom mirror.
The mobile backdrop was accented at times by sparse moments of pyrotechnics and flashing lights, while offstage a live band provided Lamar with the soundscape to rip off a set list of more than 20 hits from his last three albums, “Damn.” “To Pimp a Butterfly” and “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City,” to a frenzied crowd.
“We got some history, KC,” Lamar repeated throughout the night in reference to his varied musical connections to Kansas City.
Since the success of his 2013 album, “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City,” Lamar has been on an aggressive quest to establish himself as hip-hop’s biggest artist, often positioning himself as the brooding, sequestered anti-rap star. So it was an acutely deft move for Lamar to employ familiarity with the KC crowd. The multiple moments he took to celebrate Kansas City and hammer home the city’s impact on his success gave Lamar’s concert — a foreign visit — the feel of a touching homecoming.
Toward the close of the night, Lamar performed “Humble,” his booming ode to modesty. Halfway through the song, Lamar and the music stopped as the Sprint Center rapped more than a minute of the song word for word a cappella, causing Lamar to remove his stage microphones from his ear and marvel. The moment was hair-raising.
He then took a few moments to detail Strange Music’s influence and thank two veteran local rappers: “I want to give a salute to Tech N9ne, Krizz Kaliko, the whole Strange Music family for being true big brothers … those two made me a humble student before I even know what ‘Humble’ was,” Lamar said with a laugh.
“I told myself when I came back here it’d be a perfect 10, but f*** that, we’re gonna take it up to a 20, don’t you agree?”
Lamar then played an encore of “Humble.” A quiet king, beating his chest.
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