A little more than a week ago, Kendrick Lamar played in Glasgow’s SSE Hydro as part of his DAMN. tour in Europe. Accompanied by James Blake and bolstered by a range of unexpected and thoroughly entertaining non-musical acts, the night was a jaw-dropping musical extravaganza.
Upon my arrival at the Hydro almost half an hour before the doors opened, there were already six long queues waiting to get through the security checks. Most eager audience members were in their teens and twenties sporting DAMN. merchandise and trying their best to keep themselves warm as snow started falling during the wait.
James Blake and his talented supporting band, Airhead (aka guitarist Rob McAndrews and Mr Assister aka drummer Ben Assister), came on stage as the opening act, kicking off the night with “I Never Learnt to Share”. As the well-known loop of the song’s minimalistic lyrics (“My brother and my sister don’t speak to me, but I don’t blame them”) echoed through the venue, Blake and co. established an eerily bewitching atmosphere. Surrounding the band was a rectangular set of wavy blue strobes, which enhanced the song’s ghastly feel and made the growing crowd seem strangely small in the arena’s immense space.
While certainly a highlight in the beginning, this sense of space also came as a disadvantage to the performance. After all, James Blake’s complex electronic soul is the kind of meditative, introspective music that does not necessarily require (or provoke) energetic dance moves. In the Hydro’s gigantic inner space, some members in the crowd became restless, somewhat depriving the opening act of its initially touching, personal vibe.
In terms of the setlist, classics like “Limit to Your Love”, “Timeless”, and the concluding “Retrograde” were expectable features, and even if they did not suspend the idea of the Hydro being too big for Blake, their live performance was excellent. One of the more exciting highlights was “Loath to Roam”, a single from Blake’s upcoming LP, for which he abandoned his natural habitat of synth sets and walked over to the front of the stage. “Loath to Roam” is upbeat and memorable, and it is certainly one to look forward to once is it released. Blake and his supporting duo shined most when the concert shifted back to his beginnings: “CMYK” felt like a victorious uproar after its predecessors, as its multi-layered sound truly conquered the Hydro by sending shivers down the crowd’s spines with its heavy bassline, strong beats and fast-paced, distorted robotic vocals.
Blake said goodbye by furthering the hype for Kendrick Lamar, telling the audience that they’re in for “one hell of a show.” Not only was that true, it was an understatement: a short film segment appeared on the screens, depicting the story of Kung-Fu Kenny Lamar, and his quest under the alias of warrior Black Turtle to find the Glow. The segments served as short interludes between a few tracks, and were relentlessly entertaining with their nostalgic ‘80s B-movie feel. I will not spoil what the Glow actually was, but as a conclusion to Kung-Fu Kenny’s story, it was a hilarious revelation in shape of a humorous love letter to black women. The final shot also zoomed in for a close-up on a cheekily grinning Kendrick, provoking an uproar of delight among fans.
As the first segment of Kung-Fu Kenny faded to black, a set of fireworks on stage suddenly exploded, revealing the rapper himself in the middle. The first three tracks were breathtakingly energetic: with the likes of “DNA.”, “ELEMENT.”, and “King Kunta”, Kendrick assured the crowd that those planning to sit through his concert were in the wrong place. He then continued by the more held-back seventh track from untitled unmastered., a surprising feature on the setlist with its almost nine-minute emotional odyssey: levitate, levitate, levitate, levitate we did.
Out of his many collaborative acts he chose to perform Rich the Kid’s “New Freezer”, a sudden detour towards trap, and Schoolboy Q’s classic “Collard Greens”. A key to Kendrick’s performance was his impressively tight timing, the momentary quick shifts from one song to the other, and most importantly, his extensive interaction with his audience. He thanked the crowd multiple times for attending, and at times embarked on brief nostalgia rides, evoking his last time in Glasgow half a decade ago. As one of the most touching moments of the night, he reached out to those who saw him as a beginner in 2012, and said “You’re part of my journey, and I’m part of yours.”
This opened a gateway to tracks from good kid, m.A.A.d city, lyrically bringing Compton to Glasgow. During a short Kung Fu Kenny interlude, Kendrick disappeared from the main stage and appeared on a pedestal in the middle of the crowd — this provoked entertaining reactions from crowd members, exclaiming “Oh s***, how did he get there?” As the platform arose from the ground, it revealed hanging light sets designed to make it look like a prison cell. While “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “Backseat Freestyle” were delights, the undeniable cathartic moment of the night was “LUST.” abruptly ending to give way to “Money Trees”. With his constant communication with the audience, and in this case physical proximity, it felt like Kendrick broke barriers to honestly give his best.
As the night neared to an end, the long-awaited “Alright” and “HUMBLE.” got their turn. While it was slightly disappointing to see To Pimp a Butterfly fall out of the spotlight (despite the allusions in Kung Fu Kenny to the Boris Gardiner sample used in “Wesley’s Theory”), this was overcome by the exhilarating ten minutes of “HUMBLE.” One may call a song successful based on its peak position on charts, its rave reviews, or half a billion views on YouTube, but these become mere numbers and words when a crowd of thousands jumps up in unison and recites almost the entire song on their own, while the artist slowly puts down the mic and watches quietly — and this is exactly what happened during “HUMBLE.” Kendrick then thanked the audience once again, and restarted the song to perform it himself.
Finally, he concluded the night by “GOD.” as an encore, referring to it as his favourite from DAMN. In retrospect, it is no wonder how much acclaim Kendrick Lamar has garnered within half a decade — besides his undeniable talent, his intuitive matching of musical tone with lyrics and his poetic mastery, he is certainly a definitive cultural figure who will be remembered for long in the future. Those planning to attend the DAMN. tour somewhere in Europe or catch him at festivals in the summer are, like James Blake said, surely in for “one hell of a ride.”
James Blake’s latest single, “If the Car Beside You Moves Ahead” was released on 26 January and is now available to stream.
Kendrick Lamar’s latest project, a soundtrack/inspired by album for Marvel’s Black Panther was released on 9 February (and features a collaboration with James Blake on the track “King’s Dead”).