Kendrick Lamar @ SSE Hydro, Glasgow, 11 Feb

Kendrick Lamar gives his all to the crowd at the SSE Hydro tonight, offering up exactly the razor sharp satire we need in these uneasy times

Live Review by Alexander Smail | 14 Feb 2018

From the moment he was announced as Kendrick Lamar’s support act, some formidable question marks loomed over James Blake’s set. Could he carry the SSE Hydro by himself? Would his minimalist electronica gel well with Lamar’s bravado? Would much of the crowd even show up to see him play? After seeing him perform, the answer to the latter two is a resounding ‘no’ but, with a quietly confident set, he makes a compelling case for himself as deserving of a larger platform. If the gambit didn’t quite pay off, Blake fans were at the very least treated to a gorgeous set from the English producer.

No matter what songs he performed, or how he performed them, Blake was just never going to hype the crowd up for the star of the night. Thankfully, he doesn’t try. For much of the set he doesn’t even get out of his seat, residing snuggly within his comfort zone – surrounded by synthesisers on all sides – whilst delivering unfussy arrangements of fan-favourite tracks such as Limit to Your Love and Life Round Here. It’s only when he approaches a standing microphone, though, that he definitively casts off any notion of what his set should be.

Beneath the cacophony of synths and vocal loops, Blake’s most powerful asset has always been his otherworldly voice; listening to him debut new material, it seems he’s finally realised it. With Can’t Believe the Way We Flow, he delivers a powerhouse vocal performance, his featherweight falsetto anchored by sparse drums and choral chanting. It’s a bold choice, bolder at a Kendrick Lamar concert. Having Blake open for the rapper was a head-scratcher from the beginning; seeing him perform a terrific set to an apathetic crowd, it remained one until the end.

On the contrary, entering with the literal bang of pyrotechnics, Kendrick Lamar commands attention from the moment he ascends from beneath the stage. Preceding his arrival a short skit plays onscreen, starring Lamar as martial arts prodigy Kung Fu Kenny – who is told he must seek out “the Glow”. The perfect blend of badassery and throwback kung fu cheesiness, it’s a sheer delight. Anticipating a languid crowd in need of a pick-me-up, he scorches the icy electronica of his support act with an aggressive rendition of DNA. that promptly has mosh pits forming among the audience. As expected, his natural charisma carries the entire night.

Compared to the slew of keyboards, synthesisers, and drums arranged during Blake’s set, Lamar presents the stage as his personal dojo – uncluttered and unoccupied for much of the evening, save for the sporadic appearance of a backup dancer. Instead, he plays creatively with the space itself. LUST. finds the rapper in a luminous cage that rises from within the crowd, and he performs PRIDE. horizontally (as in, literally lying down) atop a hidden platform to give the appearance of levitation. Introspective and low-key, despite the theatrics, the latter is ironically one of the few moments that an echo of James Blake’s ruminative set can be heard.

A second skit, similar in tone and style to the first, begins with Lamar’s Mortal Kombat-esque battle with a ninja – halfway through they literally transform into a turtle and snake respectively – before cutting to a scene of a black man being arrested by the police whilst a bystander laments “he didn’t do anything”. Lamar has always balanced humour with pathos effectively, and the ridiculousness of the sharp juxtaposition played out onscreen is exactly the kind of razor sharp satire that he honed on last year’s DAMN.

He’s able to drop the irony and build a natural rapport with the crowd, too. Before performing LOVE. – “the most important word” he affirms – Lamar asks the audience to turn the torches of their phones on. Suddenly, the venue lights up like the night sky for the kind of cinematic moment that can only work in an arena as epic in scale as the Hydro. Backseat Freestyle, meanwhile, is a beautifully filthy singalong, where Lamar’s fans try in vain to keep up with his rapid-fire delivery.

The Compton native is smart enough to know that the points where he’s connecting with the crowd in such a way are naturally going to be the highlights. He revels in letting his fans take part, whether he's performing showstoppers or pensive cuts. A moment of (relative) wistfulness comes with Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe, where the audience wail that now-iconic hook – some with their phones still beaming – and for a moment the rapper imbues the gargantuan space with the intimacy of an underground venue. Then, without missing a beat, he ups the ante “to a level 20” for Alright, and even those sitting down lurch out of their seats to join in.

A final video bookends the evening, where Kenny gets the happy ending he deserves and we finally learn what “the Glow” is. A number of women dance in Kabuki-esque style, before one of them spreads her legs to reveal a shining light, accompanied onscreen by the text “where the black is darkest, the Glow will shine brightest”. With a wink and a smirk Lamar collects his prize as equal parts cheers and laughter fill the arena, before he erupts into closer HUMBLE. In these uneasy times, Kung Fu Kenny is the hero we need but don’t deserve.