October 17, 2012
From a distance, it looked like a lazy protest was being staged at L.A. Live last night — a handful of people dressed alike in baggy white t-shirts wandered the sidewalk or propped themselves up on fire hydrants, occasionally waving placards that announced Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar's album title and release date. From the balcony outside Club Nokia, someone hollered, “When I say Kendrick, you say Lamar! Kendrick!” One dude looked up and offered a halfhearted response.
So his street team wasn't the most dedicated. Kendrick Lamar is. In a rare musical feat, he performed two shows last night at Club Nokia, one at 9:15 and one at 11. (We attended the first.)
Besides L.A. being his hometown, there was probably another reason to try to accommodate as many fans as possible: His major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, will be released Monday. Surely Lamar was aware the full album leaked earlier in the day, but he made no mention of it and performed only the singles he'd already let loose — “The Recipe,” “Compton,” and “Swimming Pools.”
The last time we saw Lamar, he was unofficially coronated the new king of West Coast rap by Snoop Dogg. It was a little over a year ago at the Music Box, and, gold chain glinting against his black suit, it seemed Lamar had dressed for the ceremony. In contrast, last night was set up as a snapshot from Lamar's past. A façade of a faded house with barred windows sat next to a strip of fence with the graffiti, “Jesus is Lord.” After footage of that torch-passing scene rolled on a video screen, an image of his mama's van parked along a curb clicked into place, completing the recreation of the hood where he grew up.
Bursting out of the house's door around 9:30, the only sign this was “King Kendrick” circa 2012 was that his hoodie was by Dope Couture. “Feels good to be home,” he said.
Lamar has grown more confident as a performer. At one point, he laid down onstage and talked to the ceiling. Before “A.D.H.D.,” he sat on the front step of the porch as if he were just kicking it with a couple thousand of his closest friends.
His show was more fast-paced, perhaps because he had another show right afterward. But if he was conserving his voice for that one, he did so smoothly and inconspicuously. While the set list was already full of fan favorites (“P&P,” “She Needs Me,” “Hol' Up”), he asked the crowd what we wanted to hear. After doing “Rigamortus” and “Michael Jordan,” he said: “Couple y'all favorite songs; here's a couple of mine,” and out popped T.I. for a taut, slick performance of “What You Know.”
A lean Dr. Dre emerged later for two of the good kid, m.A.A.d city songs on which he features, and when he left through the house's door, we couldn't help but recall his stumbling home in the video for “Nuthin' But a G Thang.” After labelmates Ab-Soul and Jay Rock joined Lamar onstage for a quick encore of “Cartoons and Cereal,” they didn't seem to know where to exit. Lamar led them into the “house” with a promise of weed.
Personal Bias: Yes, there are more charismatic rappers, but does anyone question Kendrick Lamar's ability at this point?
The Crowd: Young and casual. Girls in high-waisted cut-off jean shorts and crop tops, guys in snapbacks.
Overheard in Crowd: Kids rapping every single lyric along with Kendrick.