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Review: Kendrick Lamar, Rap’s Skeptical Superstar, Eschews Arena Spectacle

What’s changed is how many people are watching. “DAMN.,” Mr. Lamar’s fourth studio album, which was released in April, is his first record rooted in the tensions associated with success. He leaned heavily on it at this concert, returning again and again to the album’s most potent mantra: “Ain’t nobody prayin’ for me.”

That declaration is one thing to say on an album, and another thing altogether when a crowd of about 18,000 is saying it back to you. The immersion was churchlike, less about sensory overload than a fervent commitment to take in a pastor issuing one demanding statement after another.

For all its self-interrogation, “DAMN.” is Mr. Lamar’s most accessible album, and the one in which he finally allows anthemic impulses to fully coexist with his at times ornery aesthetic. Songs like “DNA.,” “LOYALTY.” and “HUMBLE.” had the gut-punch and abandon to rouse this arena, as did the older songs “Alright” and “Backseat Freestyle.” Though Mr. Lamar was largely alone onstage, he was backed by an obscured-from-view live band, which made the reticent jazz-inflected soul he prefers to rap over into something denser, greasier and more shattering.

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Kendrick Lamar was largely alone onstage, but he was backed by a live band that was out of view.

Credit
Caitlin O’Hara for The New York Times

Throughout his hour-and-a-half set, Mr. Lamar was energetic and nimble — his body communicated joy, exasperation, supreme confidence. Sometimes his movements were herky jerky, as if he were absorbing invisible blows. Rarely did he indulge in grand gestures (apart from a couple of deep bows as he took in some extended adulation from the audience). He was a worker with a job to do, and he did it without much glamour.

There were occasional pyrotechnics, some lighting rigs moving around the stage, and, late in the show, a ceiling that descended until it hovered just over Mr. Lamar’s head. On one song, he appeared to be floating horizontally, just over a dancer who was floating parallel beneath him. For a handful of songs, he rapped on a platform in the middle of the arena floor, sometimes in a low crouch. And at various points in the night, a lightly comedic kung fu film starring Mr. Lamar played on the screen behind him — it was the only time you could see him smile.

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Travis Scott, a wild live performer, was one of two opening acts on Kendrick Lamar’s tour.

Credit
Caitlin O’Hara for The New York Times

Mr. Lamar’s set was a wild contrast with that of Travis Scott, who performed just before him, and is one of contemporary hip-hop’s most energetic and disruptive live performers. Unlike Mr. Lamar’s music, which is dense and morse-code tricky, Mr. Scott’s songs are psychedelic and woozy, and sometimes sound incomplete. But onstage, he is an entrancing maniac, and here, even more so given that he delivered half of his set from atop a huge bird that swooped up and down, left and right, over the main stage. (The other opener was the Virginia sing-rap jester D.R.A.M.)

If Mr. Scott was running an obstacle course, Mr. Lamar was engaged in calisthenics. His performance ranged from urgent cris de coeur to languorous meditations, but he delivered both with the same blue-collar virtuosity. And at the end of the show, after he performed the incendiary “HUMBLE.” twice, he returned for a two-song encore, the swampy “FEEL.” and “GOD.,” that was decidedly more muted. It was as if, after a night preoccupied with avoiding polish, he had spotted one rogue bit, and came out to scrape it away.

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