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Perfect Imperfection: Kendrick Lamar Live At Glastonbury
Patrick Clarke , June 28th, 2022 09:40

Kendrick Lamar might not be our saviour, but his headline slot at Glastonbury 2022 is a staggering demonstration of how an embrace of complexity and contradiction can make for an extremely powerful live performance

Credit: BBC

"Kendrick made you think about it, but he is not your saviour," comes a voice from the speakers before Kendrick Lamar begins the very last song of his Glastonbury headline set. What, then, are we to make of the crown of thorns he's wearing on his head? What are we to make of the way he performs 'Humble' while turning direct to the camera and staring into it with absolute confidence with the sight of 100,000 adoring fans in the background? What about 'King Kunta', where he gazes into a mirror that fragments the screen behind him into two as he raps? It speaks to the tangle of contradictions that make his set, and his work in general, so engaging, the war between ego and vulnerability, human nature viewed as a mash of contradictory thoughts and opposing urges, Lamar's refusal to buy into simplistic binary thinking and to embrace the messy multiplicity of human experience instead.

His new album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers has been rightly acclaimed for its deft navigation of personal demons, ego trips, spiritual growth and the complexity of modern morality – as well as his status as one of the most famous rappers on earth and the effects that has on one's psyche. In the video for the standalone track that preceded its release, 'The Heart Part 5', deepfake technology was put to use to allow Lamar's face to morph continuously into those of numerous Black American cultural icons, many of whose flaws have been prominent – Kanye West, Will Smith, Kobe Bryant, OJ Simpson and more – as if he's searching in vain for a path to follow. Although the set is in fact lighter on new material than might be expected, Lamar begins by embodying that theme with 'United In Grief', the opener from Mr. Morale that keeps zigzagging between self-indulgence and self-criticism – "I grieve different," Lamar proclaims. "Everybody grieves different," a disinterested deadpan from the backing track retorts.

Throughout the Glastonbury weekend, there were the usual rumours of special guests for this show, in the way Paul McCartney had brought out Dave Grohl and Bruce Springsteen the night before for instance. From what I overhear, people are convinced it'll be either Drake or Eminem, or perhaps even Stormzy who's spotted backstage, but in the end Lamar performs entirely on his own; there's not even a visible live backing band. It feels like a statement in itself – if his most recent art is an exercise in plunging self-analysis, this show must be by him alone. Lamar is, however, joined by two sets of dancers, men in crisp white shirts and black trousers to match his own, and a red rope over each left shoulder, and women in flowing red dresses who are choreographed with absolute precision.

The male dancers move in such a fashion that they could be extensions of Lamar's psyche. They all move in perfect time with their stares all fixed at the same point, at times they shoot off in different directions behind him as if to represent all the multitudes in one mind, and at others circling around him like spiralling thoughts. The women move in the opposite fashion, drifting and gliding where the men are jerky and intense. At times they have an otherworldly presence, one of them leading Lamar by the hand while his head is bowed, after which he performs one of Mr Morale's most introspective songs 'Crown' while they swoop elegantly around him; at one point, the male dancers are stood rigid and tense before, one by one, the women touch them on the head and send them limp as if casting a spell. When he performs 'Swimming Pools (Drank)', two men set apart from the others by their bright pink hair dance together with motion somewhere between those two extremes.

On a surface level, it makes for an incredible spectacle, and Lamar never lets the set's artfulness obscure the occasion. He makes sure to load the opening section with a slew of crowdpleasers from 2012's good kid, m.A.A.d city which takes in a rapid run of 'm.A.A.d city', 'Money Trees', 'Backseat Freestyle', 'The Art Of Peer Pressure', the aforementioned 'Swimming Pools (Drank)' and 'Poetic Justice', and keeps the energy ramped up high and the crowd engaged. The sheer level of concentration you can see in his eyes as he performs would be magnetic whatever the song. The emotional peaks and troughs that come along with Lamar's multidirectional lyrical focus, from the joyous "I love myself" refrain of 'i' and the hazy self-destruction on 'Swimming Pools', to the braggadocio of 'Backseat Freestyle' and the intense vulnerability of 'Count Me Out'.

That, in its essence, is what makes the set special, the way in which Lamar can marry high concept art and mass accessibility. It's conclusive evidence that a headline set can be forward-thinking, evidence to the contrary of the kind of naysayer who'd rather watch one of the indie rock bands who seem to have been rotating around every other festival headline slot in Britain for the last decade. And incidentally, there are moments in Lamar's set more communal than any 'Wonderwall' singalong. 'Alright' is the most obvious, where the chorus is roared back with power by the crowd as thousands jump up and down, hands aloft. Other moments are more subtle; "Anybody fightin' through the stress?" Lamar asks on 'Count Me Out'.

It is important to note, however, that the set is not as simple as Lamar providing a template on which the audience can project their own lives. He invites us to look inwards at ourselves, but though there are plenty of universal truths to be found in his words, many others come from a place that can only be his own; good kid m.A.A.d city, for example, is nothing if not a stylised autobiography of his experiences as a teenager in Compton – a world away from the majority white and middle class environs of Worthy Farm. It's unclear whether he hears it when the crowd starts chanting his name to the tune of 'Seven Nation Army', that most British of displays of affection, but if he does he must surely find that an unusual disconnect. Communal and incredibly individual all at once, this is yet another of the set's intriguing paradoxes. It's a show in which every single element has been choreographed with a specific purpose in mind, and yet also one which can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways.

Before his final song, Lamar breaks the spell for a moment and reveals his working, explaining that he's taking from the crowd as much as he's giving back. "That's the real reason I wrote Mr Morale, because everyone's going through something," he says. Then he introduces 'Savior', the track on which not only he himself, but J. Cole, Future and LeBron James too, are all presented as "not your saviour," no matter their accomplishments. "It's my favourite record off that album. It's [about] the true meaning of imperfection, and that's beautiful, no matter what you're going through," Lamar says. "Imperfection is beautiful." Then, he gestures to the crown of thorns above his head. "I wear this crown as a representation, so you never forget one of the greatest prophets that ever walked this earth. They judge you, they judge Christ." He might not be our saviour but in his embracing of Christ's message of tolerance and love despite what flaws a person contains he is following in the Christian messiah's footsteps as best he can.

Then, something strange happens at the set's climax. Intensely focussed up until this point, a different energy from somewhere deeper than he's gone before starts to bubble to the surface. He gradually gets more and more aggressive. "They judge you, they judge Christ," he raps again, this time adding, "Godspeed for women's rights!" His set is taking place just days after the US Supreme Court has struck down the federal right to abortion, driven by a philosophy of rigidity and intolerance that although often claiming Christian justification, is entirely opposite to the one Lamar has preached tonight. He says the line again, and again, until he's carried away on a frenzy of anger. Blood has started streaming down his face from the crown, and the dancers arrange themselves slowly around him so that the scene resembles a masterpiece Renaissance painting. He begins screaming with a force unlike anything else, then abruptly drops the mic and leaves us reeling. Thus ends a set for the ages.