Respect yourself: Kendrick Lamar's standing-room only Roseland show
Compton’s new hip-hop hope brings it down to earth, brilliantly
By Robert Christgau
Special to MSN Music
I know it's square of me, but let me begin with a procedural note. It was 6:30 p.m. when I seized my banquette seat at the 6 o'clock show Hot 97 added after the original 9:30 edition of Kendrick Lamar's concert sold out. The crowd was still treading into Manhattan's 3,500-capacity Roseland at 7, diverted by a Hot 97 hypeman who at 7:26 told us Lamar would be on in five minutes. Only, in point of fact, Lamar was on in 36 minutes. Granted, he then performed for 75 ‑- although the rush to 9:30 curtailed the encore, he packed in a full-bodied variation on his customary setlist. But I was struck by how much hip-hop fans are still putting up with to get in the same room with their heroes. It's partly the pat-downs ‑- yep, I got checked for an ankle holster too ‑- but partly what suspiciously resembles a culture of disrespect.
Happily, the rest of the concert explicitly resisted this disrespect. As hypeman shout-outs that played ethnic rivalry as multicultural abundance established, the crowd was as diverse as an acclaimed, platinum-bound album deserved. Puerto Rico was in the house. The DR was in the house. White dudes were in the house. But Kendrick is acclaimed because he roots his songs so multivalently in African-American Compton, which when he was born in 1987 was beset by a crack epidemic that would endanger but never engulf his development. By the tired old formula of working hard and thinking positive, he built an alt-rap career whose major-label fruit is the subtly conflicted "good kid, m.A.A.d. city." That album deals in full with the stupid stuff he barely got away with and doesn't always present the person he wants to be as a positive-thinking paragon. And he addresses himself first to his Ronald Reagan-era homeboys nationwide.
As a tease, a test, and a reward to his old fans, six songs passed before Lamar laid out any hit-album goodies: one done with trap hard Young Jeezy, one done with standup comedian Childish Gambino, one from his first indie album, two from his second indie album, and one his F-wording collab with A$AP Rocky. But the sequence of five "good kid, m.A.A.d. city" tracks that followed also had a point to make. Replete with unfunny, undramatic skits and apparently offhand rhymes, Lamar's big album is muted by hip-hop standards; while enunciating clearly enough, he murmurs more than declaims. But having established his live flow as a showy and forceful thing, he then demonstrated that the little tunes that rise from the album can do duty as flat-out hooks. "Ya bish?" "All my life I want money and power." "Bitch don't kill my vibe." A little surprisingly, "I know-just know-just know-just what you want." And oh yes, "Pool full of liquor I'm gonna dive in it."
Dressed in NY cap, white T and leather pants, Lamar dominated the stage even when his more physically imposing Black Hippy possemates Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock strutted around him, and apparently didn't give ground to ASAP Rocky or 50 Cent in the late show either. Now and then he'd let the music fall out and rhyme a cappella as his fans recited choruses as well as verses right along with him. But when he elected to close with a rapid-fire unaccompanied rhyme that I took for a credo-autobiography without recognizing it or following it verbatim, the crowd quieted down. "Everyone who comes to my shows is a down-to-earth person," he'd told us. "You're all genuine. We come from the same place." And although that couldn't have been the literal truth, it felt pretty close. Even in gun-controlled NYC, those pat-downs made sense. But procedural glitches notwithstanding, Lamar was there to demonstrate that every single person in the room deserved respect.
Starting in 1967, Robert Christgau has covered popular music for The Village Voice, Esquire, Blender, Playboy, Rolling Stone and many other publications. He teaches in New York University's Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, maintains a comprehensive website at robertchristgau.com and has published five books based on his journalism. He has written for MSN Music since 2006.
Photo: Peter Kaminski/WENN