Whether people are talking about what he’s done (just now, curating the soundtrack for Marvel’s groundbreaking Black Panther movie) or what he hasn’t done (won all the Grammys he deserved last month), Kendrick Lamar is at the centre of the cultural conversation.
It’s easy to see why the 30-year-old fascinates. He has risen from Compton gangland to be widely acknowledged as the greatest rapper alive, and accepted the title with monastic serenity. His most commercially successful album, last year’s Damn, is not a pop compromise but an introspective beauty that sees him forgoing traditional braggadocio in favour of taking a long, hard look at himself. His biggest song, Humble, features the key line: “Sit down, be humble,” and is so popular that he allowed the crowd to rap the whole thing this evening – though no one was sitting down.
On stage he was a restrained mover, crouched or prowling, in a black outfit with straps swaying. With his band hidden he was alone in the wide space save for the occasional dancer, fireball or sword-wielding ninja. In short films he portrayed his latest alter-ego, Kung Fu Kenny, and at one point, actually cracked a smile.
Otherwise this was a serious business. Alright, which became an inspiring theme tune for the Black Lives Matter movement, sounded like a strange song to be such a powerful unifying anthem, with its jazzy inflections and abstract stabs of backing vocals. XXX and Loyalty, which featured recorded cameos from U2 and Rihanna respectively, underplayed such starry connections and didn’t show the guests on screen.
Lamar’s words, fluid, technical and wise, were the real focus. “Ain’t nobody praying for me,” he repeated at intervals, stressing an isolation which he emphasised still further by relocating to a small second stage within a cage of white lights.
There’s little point in pitting him against Bruno Mars for an award. He’s out on his own, voicing political and personal thoughts with unique power. As the big screen turned and lowered above him to put him and his busy smoke machine in a smouldering letterbox, he delivered conclusive proof that nobody else comes close right now.
Tonight, O2 Arena, SE10 (0844 824 4824, the02.co.uk); Feb 20, SSE Arena, Wembley, HA9 (0844 815 0815, ssearena.co.uk)