For nearly all of the show, Kendrick Lamar stood alone.
Sure, there was the typical arena-show eye candy at the Schottenstein Center: giant screens, flashing lights, pyrotechnics. The Tuesday night performance incorporated a martial-arts theme, too, with “Mortal Kombat”-like video montages and a sword-wielding samurai who hopped onstage periodically. But the main event was “Kung Fu Kenny,” with mic in hand, whipping a packed arena into a frenzy with the intensity of his gaze, the charisma of his movements and the undeniable power of his rapid-fire words coupled with house-shaking beats.
Lamar dedicated nearly half of the show to songs from DAMN., the 30-year-old, Compton-raised rapper’s newest album. “When you look at the song titles on this album, these are all my emotions and all my self-expressions of who I am,” Lamar recently told Rolling Stone. “Ultimately, I'm looking in the mirror.”
Often those songs served as opposite sides of the Kendrick coin. Lamar offered “LUST.” as well as “LOVE.” He performed both “PRIDE.” and “HUMBLE.,” the latter of which provided one of the more memorable moments of the show. As Lamar began the song, he let the crowd take the lead — a tactic he used intermittently to great effect throughout the night. But this time, he let the crowd keep going. And going. And going. As Lamar silently mouthed the words, an arena of thousands rapped almost the entire song a cappella.
At the end of the song, a less-humble audience member tried to rush the stage, but security guards restrained him. Lamar calmly turned and paused. “Don’t hurt him,” he said. “You good? He OK? … He’s just turnt.”
The rapper then broke into the full version of “HUMBLE.” with all the backing tracks and words from the man himself. It was just as good the second time.
“Let’s not forget where we came from,” Lamar told the crowd about halfway through the show before launching into fan favorite “Backseat Freestyle” from 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, an album he came back to frequently, delighting the crowd with hits like “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Swimming Pools (Drank).” The set was light on tracks from Lamar’s critically acclaimed 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly, other than the funktastic “King Kunta” and “Alright,” which for a time became the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Wearing an all-red outfit with a black belt and the words “SAFETY PIN” across his chest (presumably a nod to the act of wearing safety pins as an anti-racism gesture), Lamar paced the stage, sometimes crouching in the smoke, and for a pair of songs he performed on a miniature platform in the middle of the arena. He infuses much of his music with his faith, and in between several songs, the speakers blared a refrain heard throughout DAMN.: “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me.” Lamar delivers the line not out of self-pity, nor out of a secular self-reliance. It’s stated as fact: I am Kendrick Lamar, the greatest rapper, and because of the status I hold, nobody feels the need to pray for me.
It’s a different approach from Chicago’s Chance the Rapper, who takes church tropes (gospel choirs) and church lingo (blessings) and artfully enmeshes them with his own idiosyncrasies. Kirk Franklin, though, would stick out like a disrobed choir member on “GOD.,” Lamar’s choice of show-closer at the Schott. “This what God feel like — laughin’ to the bank like, a-ha!” he sang, and while at times the song feels self-referential (the “PRIDE.” aspect of Kendrick Lamar: Rap God), at other times it sounds more like the man upstairs (“Do you know who you talkin’ to?” comes across as God addressing the “HUMBLE.” version of Kung Fu Kenny).
There’s an honesty in Lamar’s ambiguity — an admission to being humble before God, yet admitting that fame can make him feel as powerful as a deity. Lamar may have been up there onstage by himself, surrounded only by bright lights, rotating screens and the occasional burst of flames, but that one self contains multitudes. It’s the kid from Compton, with roots from Africa, who’s presently on top of the world and knows it, yet still reprimands himself (“Sit down. Be humble.”).
Maybe that’s why Kendrick Lamar can evoke an ovation by standing like a statue and staring at the ground, or cause an eruption of cheers with a quick jerk of his head or a spastic shoulder shrug. There’s no need for an onstage DJ or hype man or flashy dancers, because in every song Lamar delivers multiple versions of himself. Even when he’s alone onstage, there's more than one Kendrick Lamar.