Kendrick Lamar had been away for a very long time.
One thousand eight hundred and fifty days between the release of his album “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” and its Pulitzer Prize-winning predecessor “DAMN.”
At Lamar’s last concerts in Orange or Los Angeles counties were in 2018. The concert on Wednesday, September 7 is the first of six in the region, followed by Sunday, September 11 at Toyota Arena in Ontario, then Wednesday through Saturday, September 14-17 at Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles.
It was, as our show’s narrator, Helen Mirren – yes, really – proclaimed on Wednesday, it was time for Kendrick to get out of the house again.
“Mr. Moral, this is Helen Mirren,” our favorite lady said in the first of her periodic recorded announcements throughout the show. “I’m going to walk you through this performance. You’re in your comfort zone.” for more than 1,855 days. You have to get out eventually.
And Lamar did just that in spectacular fashion in a show that packed 28 songs into an hour and 45 minutes.
It was a show that at times felt more like theater or performance art than a hip-hop concert, as the Compton artist explored and exposed his inner life and all his messy and questions, and proved that even after 1,855 days of silence there are still very few rappers who can approach his genius.
A giant cube with cream curtains surrounded the main stage as a string section began playing just after 9 p.m. crowd on the ground.
Curtains up, the stage revealed Lamar at the piano, playing the opening chords of “United In Grief,” then jumping into the fast-paced rap of his opening verses.
Oh, and look there, it’s a ventriloquist puppet like the rapper that Lamar carried with him throughout this song and “N95” that followed.
Ten minutes later, it’s clear this won’t be your typical gig.
“Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” Lamar’s fifth album, arrived in May as a riveting, raw look at what he’s had on his mind since we last heard new music from him.
On the double album he explores issues of trauma and grief, double standards and expectations, his triumphs but perhaps more often his failures.
“I went to get a therapist,” he raps on “United In Grief.” And as Helen Mirren appeared in taped moments interspersed throughout the gig, it became clear that she wasn’t playing narrator so much as she was Lamar’s therapist.
“Mr. Morale, you’ve let your ego get the better of you yet again,” Mirren tells him at the end of “Rich Spirit,” one of 13 songs from the new record.
“First, you have to push yourself,” she advises later, before Lamar, during the new song “Count Me Out”, raps, “Wipe my ego, dodge my pride”, while the screens on stage display the lyrics, “A mask won’t hide who you are inside…”.
It was a fascinating insight into the mind of a restless creative artist: never indulgent, always entertaining.
Highlights from the start of the show included the arrival of several of the songs from 2017’s “DAMN,” including “ELEMENT.” sang from the center of the ramp, his towering figure and “HUMBLE”. done on the main stage with the costumed dancers hopping around him in complex and precise choreography.
A handful of older songs garnered huge cheers from fans right from the opening notes, though some, such as “Swimming Pool (Drank)” and “mAAd city” sounded truncated as Lamar let the crowd resume. big chunks of vocals. “King Kunta” was uncut, and thankfully it remains one of his more purely funky hits.
In the second half of the show, Lamar worked further on the ramp, with the production creating unexpected visual effects to enhance the songs and performances. For “Money Trees”, a large rectangular light box is lowered from the rafters to create a claustrophobic fluorescent ceiling hovering above it.
For “Alright,” one of the highlights of the second half of the show, a plastic-sided cube descended on top of him and four dancers dressed in sparkling white hazmat suits – Mirren ordered that a COVID test be performed — and he remained inside as he was lifted above the stage and filled with smoke during “Mirror” and “Silent Hill.”
Lamar’s cousin Baby Keem and Tanna Leone opened the show on Wednesday, with Baby Keem getting a much more enthusiastic and vocal response than any opening act we’ve seen in years. He was a big draw at Coachella in April and looks set to perform in his own arenas in the not-too-distant future.
Lamar brought Baby Keem back to play a trio of Keem songs towards the end of the night, and once again the crowd went wild the minute she launched into “wind”, “range brothers” and “family ties”. (Leone joined Lamar for his penultimate song, “Mr. Morale.”
This song was sandwiched between “Crown” – “I can’t please everyone,” Lamar rapped on the chorus – and the final number “Savior” – “Kendrick got you thinking / But he ain’t not your savior” that one begins.
It is clear that he has thought a lot and asked a lot of questions. At these gigs, if you listen, you might just end up doing the same thing on the long drive home.