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The Best Concert of 2017: Kendrick Lamar

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Lesser Gods just published Lighters in the Sky: The All-Time Greatest Concerts, 1960-2016 by Corbin Reiff. Each chapter walks readers through some of the most legendary live shows of all time and makes them feel as if they were really there. This “must-read” by a “masterful historian” lets music lovers “vicariously live these shows,” to quote Salon, UPROXX, and Consequence of Sound.

After attending a Kendrick Lamar show this summer, Reiff knew he’d seen the best concert of 2017. Relive the best concerts of 1960 to 2016 in Lighters in the Sky, and check out Reiff’s exclusive account of this year’s best concert below.

Kendrick Lamar

The Staples Center—Los Angeles, CA

August 9, 2017

People didn’t expect to hear anything new from Kendrick Lamar in 2017. The Compton MC had maintained a respectable radio silence after releasing and promoting his jazz-inflected masterpiece, To Pimp A Butterfly, and the cutting-room–floor collection, untitled.unmastered. He had to be working on something, but no one was sure what it was or when they’d get it. It didn’t help that Lamar’s label, TDE, had a history of slow-rolling projects.

Then, out of nowhere, he dropped a new track, “The Heart Part 4,” where he declared himself “the-great-est-rap-per-a-live” and set the music world on fire. That was followed by the bouncy, infectious single “Humble” and the announcement of a brand-new album, DAMN. People went crazy when it dropped on April 17. DAMN sold 603,000 copies in its first week alone, taking the top spot on the charts and earning two platinum plaques. Drake’s expansive “playlist,” More Life—the best album of his career, in my opinion—quickly became an afterthought.

Just days after DAMN entered the world, Kendrick was the de facto headliner at Coachella, where he aired out songs that would take over the summer. He pulled out all the stops, bringing out Kanye West protégé Travis Scott and his TDE labelmate ScHoolboy Q. Kendrick showed out with an insane amount of energy for old favorites like “Swimming Pools” and “M.A.A.D. City” as well newer stuff like “DNA” and “Element.” He returned for the second week of the festival, dropping just as many jaws, and went back-to-back with Future on a remix of his flute-filled banger “Mask Off.” These incredible performances were merely a prelude to the show he brought to cities across the country in the months to come.

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Kendrick Lamar onstage (Photo: Corbin Reiff)

Before Kendrick can make his final appearance of a three-night run at the Staples Center, the crowd is treated to an awe-inspiring performance by show-opener Travis Scott. Scott made a name for himself in the last couple of years by putting on some of the craziest, most energetic, out-of-control live performances folks had seen in a minute. At some of his gigs, fans jumped off three-story balconies. At others, they incited full-blown riots.

On the DAMN tour, some of the mania is tamped down because he’s the opener—and because he raps hits like “Goosebumps,” “Butterfly Effect” and “4 AM” while standing on a giant, mechanical eagle that’s floating precariously above those in the general admission pit. Even with a high bar like that to clear, Kendrick is more than ready to give his hometown crowd a show they’ll never forget.

A large video screen flickers to life, playing a psychedelic, ’70s-style training montage titled “The Damn Legend Of Kung Fu Kenny,” depicting Kendrick as a martial arts apprentice. As the film progresses, a steady drum beat quickens. The pace of the footage matches the music, until it all stops.

Darkness and silence fill the room, then BOOM! An explosion of pyro. The lights go up a little to reveal Kendrick through a cloud of smoke, crouched down at the center of the stage. The crowd goes bananas. He doesn’t move as the voice of two Fox News anchors crash out of the speakers to excoriate him over his lyrics, then BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! “I got, I got, I got, I got loyalty, got royalty inside my DNA!”

Clad in a yellow jumpsuit à la Uma Thurman’s character, The Bride, from Kill Bill, Kendrick whips back and forth across the stage, practically screaming into his microphone. All around the arena, fans go nearly word for word with him. Near the song’s end, the screen advises everyone to “Look Down.” A samurai ninja pops out wielding a sword and whips it around Kung Fu Kenny, who seems oblivious to the danger.

Another DAMN song, “Element” comes next, and then Kendrick addresses the crowd for the first time while the beat from “Yah” plays overhead. “I go by the name of Kung Fu Motherfucking Kenny and this is the Daaaaaaamn tour!” he says. “I’d like to thank everybody for coming out tonight. We gonna make sure we get it right!” He barely finishes his thought when “King Kunta” blasts out of the speakers. That’s followed by two tracks from untitled.unmastered and a pair of covers: Future’s “Mask Off” and ScHoolboy Q’s “Collard Greens.” Then he digs into two of the best songs off Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, “Swimming Pools” and “Backseat Freestyle.”

Thirty minutes after the show began, the lights go out. Kendrick disappears, only to reemerge on a tiny, concealed stage in the middle of the arena. He starts rapping out “Lust” while a cage made of blinking LED lights rises out of the floor and surrounds him. He plugs away on the song as the stage slowly elevates him above the cage. By the time the stage reaches its highest point, the music shifts into “Money Trees.” Kendrick is bringing the heat now. You can see the small puffs of spittle through the lights as he recites the words with fury. Before it ends, the crowd is treated to the first surprise of the night, when Jay Rock, Kendrick’s TDE labelmate, brings his verse to life on the main stage.

Jay Rock is only the first member of the TDE crew to make an appearance. Kendrick and his boss, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, have decided to make this last night at the Staples Center a family affair. At one point, Kenny introduces SZA, who runs through her lithe single “Love Galore.” Shortly afterward he brings out the Robin to his Batman, ScHoolboy Q, who gets the crowd turnt up with his hit “THat Part.” In many ways, this night is a defining moment for TDE. It’s their self-coronation as the most impactful crew of rap talent since Death Row or Bad Boy.

To end the concert, Kendrick busts out “Humble,” which recently became the first No. 1 hit of his career. The crowd takes it away from him, rapping mostly acapella, while the man onstage spurs them on. It’s an incredible display of love and respect between audience and performer, and Kendrick seems moved. When they finish, he runs it back solo and then leaves.

The L.A. crowd screams and stomps for more, and he rewards them for their fanaticism. He could’ve pulled out a big hit, another anthem or a high-energy banger, but he doesn’t. Instead he raps the elegiac deep cut “God.” Standing in the midst of 18,000 disciples, he openly declares, “This what God feel like.” If that’s not exactly true, it’s DAMN close.

Set List

DNA

Element

King Kunta

Untitled 07

Untitled 02

Mask Off

Collard Greens

Swimming Pools

Backseat Freestyle

Loyalty

Lust

Money Trees (with Jay Rock)

XXX

M.A.A.D. City

Pride

Love

Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe

Love Galore (with SZA)

Broccoli (with DRAM)

THat Part (with ScHoolboy Q)

Alright

Humble

God

Honorable Mention

One Love Manchester at Old Trafford Cricket Ground

Manchester, U.K. (June 4)

At an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena on May 22, a terrorist detonated a homemade, shrapnel-filled bomb, killing 23 people and wounding 250. The tragedy shocked and stunned the world. Rather than retreat from the horror of the occasion, just a few weeks later Grande returned to Manchester to host a star-studded benefit concert, with all proceeds donated to the We Love Manchester Emergency Fund. Grande was joined by some of the biggest names in music, including Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, Robbie Williams, Pharrell, Katy Perry, the Black Eyed Peas and Manchester’s own Liam Gallagher. One of the most cathartic moments occurred when Grande joined Coldplay to recreate the immortal Oasis hit “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” It was a hopeful moment—and a defiant one. “I want to thank you so much for coming together and being so loving and strong and unified,” Grande told the 50,000 people gathered before her. “I love you guys so much, and I think that all the love and unity you’re displaying is the medicine the world needs right now.”

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