Su­per­star Ken­drick La­mar keeps it life-size

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - MIKAEL WOOD

“LOOK DOWN,” the words on the video screen in­structed in stark all-caps — and sure enough, that was where you found Ken­drick La­mar on Sun­day night, crouched on­stage at Sta­ples Cen­ter as he per­formed his song “DNA” to start a run of three home­town con­certs.

A con­nois­seur’s fa­vorite since he be­gan re­leas­ing al­bums in 2011, the fiercely tal­ented Comp­ton rap­per grad­u­ated to pop su­per­star­dom with the re­lease of this year’s “Damn,” his fourth stu­dio set and the sec­ond-big­gest seller of 2017, ac­cord­ing to Nielsen Mu­sic. In April, two days af­ter the record came out, La­mar head­lined the mas­sive Coachella fes­ti­val in In­dio, lead­ing tens of thou­sands of devoted fans to shout along with songs they’d only just learned.

“Damn” re­flects La­mar’s as­cent; it’s largely about the temp­ta­tions and the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of fame. It’s also about ris­ing high enough to be­come a tar­get for fresh en­e­mies: On the al­bum, “DNA” is pre­ceded by the sound of sev­eral Fox News hosts de­nounc­ing La­mar’s 2015 hit “Al­right,” which was adopted as an un­of­fi­cial an­them by the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment.

But if the full house at Sta­ples Cen­ter clearly demon­strated La­mar’s stature — he’s about half­way through a North Amer­i­can arena tour, and his au­di­ence Sun­day in­cluded Bey­oncé — the show seemed de­signed to make him look small. (He’s sched­uled to per­form again Tues­day and Wed­nes­day.)

For most of his 85-minute set, La­mar roamed the wide, empty stage by him­self, ac­com­pa­nied by an ex­pert live band hid­den from view. And when that video screen wasn’t di­rect­ing your eye to the guy keep­ing him­self low to the ground, it was flash­ing dra­matic images from La­mar’s mu­sic videos — a barking dog, shirt­less men in a brawl — that fur­ther di­min­ished his size in com­par­i­son.

The idea was that La­mar, a savvy in­her­i­tor of L.A.’s gangsta-rap tra­di­tion, hasn’t out­grown his con­nec­tions to the peo­ple and the neigh­bor­hoods that made him — es­pe­cially, he said at one point, the five early adopters who’d come out years ago for one of his first gigs at the now-shut­tered Key Club. “We built this from the ground up,” he noted with ob­vi­ous pride.

Yet La­mar was also us­ing this rel­a­tively min­i­mal­ist ap­proach to set him­self apart from his peers at the top of the hip-hop food chain; the show’s scrappy com­mu­nity spirit felt like a pointed re­sponse to the kind of pro­duc­tion spec­ta­cle many rap­pers em­ploy to il­lus­trate their supremacy.

How could “LOOK DOWN,” for in­stance, not make you think of Travis Scott, the young Hous­ton MC who opened Sun­day’s con­cert with a per­for­mance he spent astride a gi­ant me­chan­i­cal bird? (To see pic­tures of the bird, or of the match­ing yel­low pants and jacket La­mar wore, you’ll have to turn to so­cial me­dia, as the head­liner’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives de­clined The Times’ re­quest to pho­to­graph the show — one way he’s ex­er­cis­ing a su­per­star’s con­trol over his image.)

And the only rea­son La­mar’s rad­i­cal act of self­shrink­age works of course is be­cause of the feel­ing and in­ten­sity he brings to the stripped-down pre­sen­ta­tion. He knows how rare his skills are, which is why he can show­case them as plainly as he did in “Damn” cuts like “DNA” and “El­e­ment” and “Hum­ble,” the last of which he per­formed twice: first with the hearty as­sis­tance of the au­di­ence, then a sec­ond time on his own, rip­ping fe­ro­ciously through the song’s words about be­ing fed up with ar­ti­fice.

For “Lust,” La­mar moved to a sec­ondary stage on the venue’s floor and de­scribed the dead­en­ing na­ture of ex­cess from the in­side of what re­sem­bled a cage with lightup bars.

Be­yond the new stuff, he reached back for some of his older tunes, in­clud­ing an ex­u­ber­ant “Al­right” and “King Kunta,” both from 2015’s dense “To Pimp a But­ter­fly.”

In this room full of true be­liev­ers, the track in­evitably be­came a rowdy sin­ga­long. Yet La­mar’s band main­tained the song’s se­duc­tive tex­tures, just as the play­ers did late in the show for “Love,” a lus­cious state­ment of ro­man­tic de­vo­tion from “Damn” in which La­mar raps as ten­derly as he ever has.

Hav­ing proved that a su­per­star can stay life-sized, he was show­ing he’s also hard enough to go soft.

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