“OHHHHHH KENDRICK LAA-MAAAA-AAAAR!” sing the Leeds Main Stage crowd to the tune of ‘Seven Nation Army’, as the sun drops on Bramham Park and the biggest name in hip-hop in a generation bounds onstage. Kendrick Lamar has “gone been through a whole lot” – he says it himself on ‘I’, the soulful Isley Brothers-sampling lead single from ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’. There’s not a lot, you’d wager from the fiercely rapped autobiography of that record, that he hasn’t already witnessed on his rise from life on violent streets of Compton to the starry peak of modern hip-hop. Hearing his name bellowed to the guitar part of a White Stripes tune turned football-terrace anthem, however, is probably a first. Welcome to the eclectic, and for the duration of his set tonight, electric, Reading and Leeds, Kendrick.
You could call that White Stripes singalong a sign – of how Kendrick’s power, politics and reputation has bloomed beyond hip-hop since bursting out of California with 2011 mixtape ‘Section 80′, spilling into indie and elsewhere. Tonight, after all, he plays right before headliners The Libertines on Leeds’ Main Stage, to a crowd largely unchanged from the one that watched Jamie T before him. Not that Lamar probably noticed. Right now, plainly, from his lean, powerful display of artsy, introspective hip-hop might, the guy is operating in a league of his very own, whatever genre.
A stop at Wireless earlier this summer aside, tonight marks one of Kendrick’s first shows on British soil since ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’, hailed already as one of the LPs of the year. He barely digs into it, though, swerving that album’s poignant post-Ferguson fire and soul-searching for more crowd-pleasing cuts from 2012’s ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’. ‘Moneytrees’ opens things, before ‘Backseat Freestyle’ and a rendition of ‘m.A.A.d city’ that sparks a mosh pit. New album singles ‘i’, ‘Alright’ and ‘King Kunta’ are given run-outs, the latter the most fizzing of all, hammering home what makes the 28-year-old so unique, even beyond his peerless skills on the mic. Who else this weekend, this decade, ever, is making a festival crowd stretching back thousands of people shout the name of an American slave who chose to have his leg amputated rather than deny his African roots?
The lack of new material suggests Lamar’s at something of a crossroads – still not quite sure how to balance his rising profile as a deliverer of ruthless verses, like his cameos on recent tracks by Taylor Swift, Dre and, notoriously, Big Sean, with the growing urge to experiment that dominates ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’. The gender-bending jazz tirade that kicks ‘…Butterfly’ into gear, ‘For Free?’ – in which Lamar slinks in and out of an effeminate voice while documenting a couple warring over material obsessions – for example, is noticeable by its absence, as if Kendrick’s live show is still yet to catch up with his evolution as a recording artist.
But the rapper’s not here to antagonise or perplex, instead happy to keep the good vibes coming. “This is a special day ‘cos I know a lot of day-one fans out here tonight,” he says, rewarding the loyalty of the crowd as he dips into early hits like ‘ADHD’ with a short take on Dre’s ‘Let Me Ride’. “I’ll be back! I’ll be back!” he promises fans, over a late rendition of ‘Sing About Me (Dying Of Thirst)’, full of lush keys. Whether next time he’ll bring more of the adventure of ‘…Butterfly’ remains to be seen, but that return can’t come soon enough.