Aug. 27, 2016
“This is classic shit for a classic motherfuckin' city, ya dig?” Kendrick Lamar declared during “These Walls,” one of a dozen or more highlights during an electrifying headlining set at FYF Fest in Exposition Park.
He probably was referring to that particular Grammy-winning track, especially in a new, stripped-down arrangement featuring jazzy keys and a funk guitar line straight out of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band playbook, and accompanied by looped, black-and-white projections of '70s blaxploitation queen Pam Grier. But he could just as easily have been referring to his entire set, which even before it was over already felt like a classic moment in L.A. hip-hop history.
Before FYF, Kendrick's last public performance in L.A. was at the Wiltern nine months ago, in November 2015. The long absence could be justified by the international success of To Pimp a Butterfly, which has kept the Compton rapper on the road ever since. But last night it also felt like a strategic move, a gestation period perfectly timed to make his FYF set seem less like a homecoming and more like a rebirth.
The Kendrick Lamar fans saw at Exposition Park attacked the stage with more confidence and swagger than ever, but also more wisdom and finesse. He knew when to urge the crowd to greater throes of enthusiasm and when to take the energy level down a notch — when to drop a sing-along anthem like “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and when to bring the focus back to his dizzyingly intricate flow.
Prowling the vast expanse of FYF's mainstage alone, with his excellent backing band pushed off nearly into the wings, Kendrick proved that he is not just the most exciting lyricist in rap — he has joined the ranks of hip-hop's greatest showmen. His performance, though entirely possessed of its own unkillable vibe, was the equal of Kanye, Jay Z or Drake.
He entered to towering blasts of flame and a thunderously heavy version of the untitled seventh track from this year's Untitled Unmastered, chanting “Levitate, levitate, levitate” and seemingly filling the stage with his slight frame by sheer force of will. Kendrick still doesn't look the part of superstar rapper, but that's part of his appeal. Sweating in a baggy long-sleeve tee bearing the words “Image More Valued Than Truth,” a discarded in-ear monitor dangling over his shoulder, he performed with a refreshing lack of posturing and pretension, always working harder than his audience, no matter how many times he exhorted them to jump.
The set list was virtually identical to the one he has performed recently at a string of international festival dates but still felt specifically tailored to an L.A. audience — as if those dates were all just out-of-town tryouts, leading up to this crucial hometown gig. Kendrick covered two tracks by fellow TDE rapper Schoolboy Q and was joined by two other labelmates — Jay Rock, reprising his verse on “Money Trees,” and Isaiah Rashad, performing his own “Free Lunch.” Kendrick frequently shouted out his “Day Ones,” the fans who have supported him since his start, and let them chant half the intro and the choruses to “A.D.H.D.” from his 2011 debut album, Section.80, an unexpected and smart way (following the simpler, feel-good vibes of “Alright”) to finish his set.
Though the set didn't lack for political imagery — especially in its black-and-white projections, which mixed pop culture figures like Prince and Mike Tyson with George W. Bush and Ronald and Nancy Reagan — the tone throughout was more celebratory than thought-provoking, a near-180 from the prison cells and slave chains of Kendrick's controversial Grammys performance earlier this year. But that presentation was for the media and middle America, and last night's set was strictly for the fans. After two years charged with some of the worst racial tension our country has seen in a decade, it was cathartic to be surrounded by a diverse L.A. crowd dancing and singing along to “i” as images of a pre–White House Obama dancing alongside Ellen DeGeneres flashed across the stage's screens.
Above all, the set played out like a fond tribute to the city — “m.A.A.d.” though it may be — that remains Kendrick Lamar's home and leading source of inspiration. Before leaving the stage, he shouted “L.A., I love you!” three times, each hoarse cry sounding more heartfelt than the last. Last night, Los Angeles loved him back — and with that support behind him, and his deep well of talent, Kendrick's already remarkable career is likely to soar toward even greater heights.
untitled 07 | 2014 – 2016
m.A.A.d city (Part 2)
Swimming Pools (Drank)
Collard Greens (Schoolboy Q cover)
That Part (Schoolboy Q cover)
Free Lunch (Isaiah Rashad cover) feat. Isaiah Rashad
Untitled 02 | 06.23.2014
Complexion (A Zulu Love)
Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe
Money Trees (feat. Jay Rock)
m.A.A.d city (Part 1)