Compton rap titan Kendrick Lamar moves in subtle, robotic motions, shifting slowly between careful, curved poses. As he fires restlessly through ‘Worldwide Steppers’, his silhouetted frame reflects off the huge onstage projectors in Paris’ Accor Arena, broadcasting to 20,000 captivated fans in what looks like a live stage recording. In fact, this feed is pre-recorded, and Lamar’s actions onstage are intricately choreographed and rehearsed to mimic it. His Paris show is packed with signs of his intense commitment to crafting artwork, but arguably, this is the most powerful of all.
After a host of North American and European dates, the international ‘Big Steppers’ tour arrives in Paris on something of a milestone: the 10th anniversary of Lamar’s breakout album ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’. Documenting the complex everyday realities of growing up in Compton, a city defined through popular culture by violence, his second record kickstarted Lamar’s phenomenal rise. A decade later, he’s one of the world’s most innovative rappers, a position only cemented in May with the release of his deeply confessional fifth studio album, ‘Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers’; earlier this summer, he premiered a version of this live show during his Glastonbury headline set. To mark the coalescence of these milestone events, tonight’s show is live-streamed to the world by Amazon Music; the footage is planned meticulously in advance, with each shot choreographed precisely, the sense of occasion clearly not lost on Lamar and his team.
Blending the moody introspection of ‘Mr. Morale’ with the clean punchiness of ‘good kid…’ is no easy task, but it is accomplished expertly. The show opens cinematically, as the dark, powerful strings of ‘Savior – Interlude’ soundtrack the mechanical struts of eleven dancers from the tip of the catwalk to the stage. From the ensuing darkness, Lamar emerges sitting at a piano, accompanied by a ventriloquist doll of himself. The pair burn fiercely through the opening tracks of ‘Mr. Morale’, ‘United in Grief’ and the bassy, high-energy ‘N95’. He swaggers through ‘Backseat Freestyle’, the first of many ‘good kid…’ tracks scattered cleverly across the set.
The album’s resonance with fans isn’t lost on Lamar’s team, who augment each classic with stunningly dramatic visuals. Onstage, the deep glow of a slowly rising sun helps introduce the glorious, cathartic anthem ‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’. During ‘m.A.A.d city’, the LA rapper is circled by a whirl of spinning, torch-carrying dancers. Inventive choreography and visual effects take the show to new heights, without detracting from the musical focus, as sound and vision intertwine fluidly to create a genuinely staggering spectacle.
Lamar performs for almost two hours, barely pausing, and rarely speaking; half an hour passes before he introduces himself, and even then it’s simply as the charismatic frontman of the Big Steppers: “I am Mr. Morale”. The thing is, it’s such a deeply affecting performance that spoken words aren’t needed. His hits are spiced up by distinctly ‘Big Steppers’-influenced touches, like the dissonant piano stabs of ‘Rich – Interlude’, used to introduce the thumping beat and G-funk synths of ‘HUMBLE.’ He teases the audience with snippets and fragments of tracks throughout the performance, launching into opening verses and choruses before cutting things brutally and introducing new motifs. As such, he squeezes in almost 30 songs – including three with support act, close collaborator and family member Baby Keem – without compromising the show’s cohesive feel or giving any impression that he’s just trying to reel off as many hits as possible; it’s a carefully selected snapshot of his incredibly diverse back catalogue.
One downside to the Steppers’ ascent is the marginal role played by ‘To Pimp A Butterly’ in the Accor Arena show. All we get from the dazzling, jazz fusion-tinged 2015 album that cemented Lamar’s status as one of the world’s most innovative rappers is the majestic crowd-pleaser ‘King Kunta’ and the soulful, gratifying ‘Alright’. The latter is one of the night’s most memorable performances: channelling his inner David Blaine, Lamar becomes trapped in a transparent plastic box that descends from the sky. Reflecting Lamar’s experience of catching COVID, the moment is contextualised by one of several recordings of Helen Mirren’s wise words (yes, really) as she states “Mr. Morale, you’ve been contaminated.” Elaborate scenes like this emphasise the fact that Lamar’s intense dedication to his craft extends far beyond his complex, deeply textured studio work.
In the show’s final moment, we get a rare glimpse into the playful personality behind this colossus of artistry and innovation, as Lamar disappears through a trapdoor into the stage, turns to stage left, and offers a cheeky grin. There’s a human touch here that can sometimes be lost in the midst of creative genius. ‘Mr. Morale’ insisted on showing the rapper’s flaws and deconstructing the god complex that surrounds him, although ironically, the album’s tour presents a creative vision that would boggle the minds of most mere mortals. It’s a stunning, moving display from a true great of modern rap.
Kendrick Lamar played:
‘United in Grief’
‘We Cry Together’
‘Swimming Pools (Drank)’
‘Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe’
‘Count Me Out’
‘Vent’ (ft. Baby Keem)
‘Range Brothers’ (ft. Baby Keem)
‘Family Ties’ (ft. Baby Keem)
‘Mr. Morale’ (ft. Tanna Leone)
Kendrick Lamar’s performance is available on-demand via Prime Video here