Live Review: Kendrick Lamar, The O2, London 12th February 2018

Kendrick Lamar, The O2, London

With added James Blake, The ‘DAMN.’ Tour proves Kung Fu Kenny is the greatest in the world right now.

Bar a few festival performances, Kendrick Lamar’s last proper headline show in London came over five years ago. As such, when The ‘DAMN.’ Tour rolls into the capital’s cavernous O2 Arena tonight for the first of two shows, an urgent feeling of making up for missed time is unavoidable.

Back in 2013, when Kendrick took his then-new album ‘good kid, m.A.A.d city’ to Hammersmith Apollo, the idea of the rapper collaborating and buddying up with James Blake would’ve seemed alien, but come tonight, it proves a perfect fit. With the producer behind the desk for ‘DAMN.’ highlight ‘ELEMENT.’ and adding vocals to a pair of tracks on the new ‘Black Panther’ soundtrack, they’ve become unlikely but incredibly suitable bedfellows.

Blake’s supporting set tonight typically swerves convention. From a swirling, extended jam version of ‘Voyeur’ to an unhinged ‘The Wilhelm Scream’, intensity is the order of the evening. It’s the two new songs he shares that point the way forward though. Stepping out from behind his mass of keyboards for the first time for new cuts ‘Can’t Believe The Way We Flow’ and ‘Loathe To Roam’, the latter of which ends as a driving, euphoric ‘80s synth-pop jam, James Blake’s future is proving to be wide open, and superbly exciting as a result.

With ‘DAMN.’, released almost a year ago, Kendrick Lamar took on a new persona, that of Kung Fu Kenny. Tonight’s show tracks the life and times of the persona via a bright, brilliant and often hilarious series of clips played throughout the show.

Sprinkled throughout the show perfectly, the clips allow breathers for both Kendrick and the audience: the show is an all-out assault on the senses, and respite is welcome. From a thunderous opening of ‘DNA.’ and ‘ELEMENT.’ into ‘King Kunta’, before which the rapper addresses his lengthy absence from playing London, the show is immaculately produced and impossible to take your eyes off. It rolls on at a pace.

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Kendrick takes to a second stage in the middle of the arena for ‘LUST.’, which sees him prowling a sparkling cage, which he then ascends to stand atop of for a triumphant ‘Money Trees’. ‘XXX’, meanwhile, sees Kendrick back on the main stage, a bright white screen slowly closing in on his head, the claustrophobic, intense nature of the track translated perfectly.

While the show never quite strays into becoming gimmick-y, ‘PRIDE.’ brings the next surprise, seeing Kendrick somehow, amazingly, suspended and rapping, um, sideways. It’s followed by ‘Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe’, in which the rapper switches up the verses with brilliant new lyrics, so much so that the crowd response after the track concludes - one which swells and becomes a cacophony of noise - makes him clearly misty-eyed, and the first moment he seems to stop and drink the atmosphere in.

‘LOVE.’ is introduced as Kendrick’s “favourite word in the world” and greeted by a sea of breathtaking phone lights. ‘Alright’ is anthemic and vital, while the instrumentation on ‘HUMBLE.’ is stripped away and the crowd left to complete the rap themselves (done remarkably well, it should be noted). The track is then given its full run-through, a euphoric encore of ‘GOD.’ is rolled out, London is declared the rapper’s “second motherfuckin’ home” and he’s gone.

A masterclass of an arena show, The ‘DAMN.’ Tour sees Kendrick at the peak of his powers, and pushing live performance in new, fascinating ways. As if there needed to be any more confirmation, tonight proves he’s the greatest in the world right now.

Photos courtesy of Top Dawg Ent.