Bottled Lightning: Kendrick Lamar Live In London By John Calvert

John Calvert heads to a cold Hammersmith to be blown away by Kendrick Lamar - "A private epiphany, the rest is history"

Kendrick Lamar is performing. He is standing alone. The lights go up and many things happen at once: A rave klaxon discharges. Superbass drops like a mortar, just as the flash-lighting runs electric through your vision. Here Kendrick Lamar stands, a halo of fire above his head, one man to our 5000, about to jump. And the crowd goes wild.

Rappers talk a lot about this level of glory, usually in terms of super-cars and then jewels and then, sometimes, diamond-encrusted panthers. It get’s a little bit wearying, like tax returns or septicaemia. However, to witness, as we do tonight, the very moment in a rapper’s career when that higher state of existence becomes a reality, is an incomparably intoxicating experience. You can’t help be impressed, because remember this is hip-hop, and when you’re on top of that particular world you’re talking about untold levels of power.

Sure, tonight is a celebration, but dominance just isn’t the occasion. And, yeah, while it’s also a display of success, the 25-year-old’s concept of success differs from many of his peers. In his final address to the audience tonight, Lamar assures us that "No matter how big this gets for me, I’m always going to come back to you". If you’re rolling your eyes right now, thinking that’s the type of stock shit he’ll fire off the next night around, then after 90 minutes of life-affirming goodwill you’re ready to believe in white fucking knights. Lamar, you see, is the real deal. In that, he’s a real human being, one of only a handful in a genre of caricatures.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing earnest about tonight. We’re witness to the most dazzling roadshow in hip-hop right now: a masterfully sequenced, searingly efficient roller-coaster of unrelenting pace, pieced together with both wit and the same sense of narrative that spanned good kid, m.A.A.d city. Across three distinct acts and flitting through venom then kindness then bliss, each track primes the one following it. The marauding strings of ‘m.A.A.d city’ electrify ‘Swimming Pool’s titanic opening synths, while ‘Hol Up”s easy gait make for the perfect calm-before-the-storm to ‘Backseat Freestyle’s gargantuan opening hook. Then there’s ‘Money Trees’, that lift-off oblivion point in any great set, around which the surrounding melee rages. A motorcading-in-LA, narcotically-portentous gangster epic, its key line "The one in front of the gun lives forever" is at once invincible and cursed. And there, at the centre of everything, is Lamar, pulling all the strings. His bravado and serene confidence simply beggars belief, considering that only six months ago, for him 5000-capacity venues were a pipe dream.

Which brings us to the following question. How, in a genre currently brimming with oversized extroverts, did he do it? How did a fundamentally unassuming rapper, with only a few esoterically pensive LP’s to his name, become the hottest ticket in rap? What was it in good kid m.A.A.d City that elevated the album above ten possible others? Well, firstly you had the embarrassment of tunes. There was that. And then you can’t discount the role Lamar’s mic skills play in distinguishing him from the pack. And then’s there the production: what represents a zenith for the ‘nu-real’ style. A new way of presenting street cred, this eschews the usual soul-earth signifiers of ‘realness’, and toys instead with techniques more associated with notions of hyperreality. The outcome is a more accurate depiction of reality, as it appears in the surrealistic world of gangsterism. Consider ‘Swimming Pool (Drank)’: precisely the kind of rich, oak-solid, quality hip-hop we’ve craved in the trap era, riven with an old-school impulsion to tell your world; to speak louder than the anonymity of poverty. At the same time, the track is completely at odds with the sometime beige ethos of earnest rap, the production creating something future-facing and fantastical, sinful and barbed. It’s a bottled-lightning formula, the best of both worlds, so what more do you need to explain Lamar’s success? The answer of course, is the extra dimension provided by live hip-hop. Aided by the open candour of Lamar’s performance, tonight is less an opportunity to understand the record so much as a clue to the type of person it was who made it.

Hip-hop shows often concern a top-down flow of information, while the rappers themselves tend to take up an attack position. It has the effect of beating back the part the audience play in creating an ‘event’. In the end, the dynamic is another extension of rap’s distorted male psychology, and it’s here where Lamar differs from most hip-hop greats before him. If not the first grounded rapper in history, he’s almost certainly the most formidable, the 25-year-old more than holding his own against the genre’s demigods. However, unlike Snoop or Biggie or Marshall or whoever, for all his talk of Eiffel Tower-sized dicks, Lamar’s superhuman aura is derived not from a heightened version of himself, but something more mundane. He is, quite evidently tonight, a well-rounded individual. And, after all is said and done, it’s the man who makes the hip-hop. Here lie the roots of good kid m.A.A.d city, and the source of his success. Full of humour, keen-minded, perceptive, manly though never macho, gliding on easy charisma and bright eyed… tonight Lamar is, right down to the way he moves, a different breed.

Now, attributing a rapper’s burgeoning genius to the quality of ‘well roundedness’ isn’t exactly the stuff of rap legend. Like, oh but he’s a super guy! Go fuck yourself. But the real point is: it’s an air of stability born from adversity, and of that we can be certain, such was the thoroughness with which Lamar reenacted his tumultuous rites of passage on good kid m.A.A.d city. Modern-day rap’s greatest morality tale, it documents Lamar’s struggle in the face of temptation and potential death; his struggle to prove he exists in a system that tells him otherwise. Like all great solo hip-hop albums, from Illmatic to Me Against The World, it transcends the genre to become something universal. "Every track on that album is one day that saved by life", he told Metro last week.

But good kid m.A.A.d city isn’t the only guide to Kendrick Lamar. From debut album Section.80, there is a track that Lamar describes as "the moment where I came together". The highlight of both the Section.80 suite and tonight’s show as a whole, the spiritually tired, chilling and sad ‘ADHD’ captured the 80s-born ‘crack-baby’ generation with unforgettable poignancy. It also frames Lamar as an unusually self-aware, idealistic artist, intent on pushing against both what he perceived as a generational apathy and the existential meaninglessness he sensed in the silence of the low-rider, as he and his crew stalked the streets of pre-dawn Compton. A private epiphany, the rest is history.

In this context, the might on display seems less a projection of Limo-riding primacy and more a paean to strength of character. And when he speaks about "respecting his mind" and tellingly "workin’ for what you want" (met with a round of applause, no less) the effect is twofold. But what really distinguishes Lamar’s show is the implied understanding that real life, his life, is absurd, complex, illogical and relative. And so, with its broad strokes of machismo and rigidly linear sentiment, live rap’s default delivery is like dead language to Lamar, because it can only ever convey a simplistic version of real life, and more importantly, his life.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today