REVIEW + PICS: Kendrick Lamar | Allphones Arena, Sydney

The last time Kendrick Lamar played a headline show in Sydney it was at the Enmore Theatre in 2012. Since then, he’s failed to achieve one top 30 single here in Australia and in the States and yet last night, he was able to draw a crowd of over 18,000 people. Allphones Arena is usually a venue reserved for bands and pop artists with big hits or decade-spanning discographies but Lamar fulfils none of that. Instead, he has To Pimp A Butterfly. A record that went number one all around the world for no other reason than it was a brilliant, important record. In a generation where people are oft-declaring the album format expired, 18,000 people in an arena watching Lamar is a pretty powerful counter-argument.

Like his public presence, Lamar took to the stage in Sydney with little fuss. He entered in silence and stared at the crowd. All he had to utter was, “this dick,” and the crowd howled. For Free? started the night and within seconds Lamar was already spitting faster and with more finesse than every rapper in the game right now. Despite being dressed in sneakers and jeans without anything flashy surrounding him, Lamar has a powerful stage presence. Accompanied at the front of the stage simply by a microphone stand, he threw his arms around with purpose, accenting every word.

While Lamar is enthralling to watch, he also creates a party atmosphere that was kickstarted in Sydney with the shuddering beat of Backstreet Freestyle. Much of the overseas press has expressed concern at the types of party-ready crowds Lamar is bringing in, given that he’s got more important notions to spread, but the rapper encouraged the party atmosphere in Sydney. He pitted sides of the crowd up against each other, stirring the energy repeatedly. He was successful too with punters following every direction he gave. He dropped Swimming Pools (Drank) early on, leaving To Pimp A Butterfly’s hallmark tracks to buoy the second half of the set.

Lamar may not have an ego the size of Kanye West on display but he brings enough confidence to the stage to play a commanding frontman. Whether he’s rapping or simply speaking, he alters the tone and volume of his voice with such skill that he remained in control of every situation. He made sure people grooved to Wesley’s Theory, jumped for m.A.A.d City and listened to u.

While To Pimp A Butterfly is full of eloquent and important themes of race and self-confidence, it’s almost as if he knows he has to simplify them for a live crowd, most likely four or five drinks down. He rarely spoke in between songs but when he did he carefully chose his words. Before he launched into Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe he told the crowd, "I don't care if you're black, yellow, green or purple, the music brings us together every single time." To Pimp A Butterfly is an album that provided more solutions than problems, putting acceptance of others and acceptance of yourself at the forefront. Even in a simplified form, this sentiment was clear.

In that way, there was something special about watching thousands of people all of different backgrounds singing, “I love myself”. Even if they were there to party more than consider Lamar’s messages, it would’ve been hard for anyone to leave the night without being partially affected by that.

The energy remained more or less the same for most of the set, but he took it to another level when he dropped King Kunta on the crowd without any warning. “I’ve got a bone to pick,” Lamar suddenly said before the everyone in the arena erupted. The song’s funky bass lines were lifted by his impeccable band and it felt like it had infinitely more gusto than on the record track. Many of his songs feel like they were designed to be performed with a live band. In fact, songs like i and King Kunta wouldn’t have been half as successful if he wasn’t backed by a band.

As we watched Kendrick, arguably the best rapper of our generation, tear up the stage, it was hard not to think about Phife Dawg’s passing earlier in the day. As someone who is endlessly appreciative of and inspired by hip-hop’s early innovators, it was unsurprising that Lamar eventually paid tribute to the late rapper, telling the crowd he wouldn’t be able to do this if it weren’t for him. In a spectacular visual sight, Lamar asked everyone to shine their phones and chant Phife Dawg’s name. It’s hard to imagine there was any tribute yesterday louder than that one and it felt like a celebration of hip-hop as much as a celebration of his legacy.



From there, Lamar went straight into what has become his career anthem Alright. “We gon’ be alright,” is perhaps one of the most simple but potent statements put into song and it was only elevated by thousands of echoes. He would’ve performed this song hundreds of times before, but you don’t get any sense of fatigue. When the camera zoomed up on his face you could see spit spraying into the microphone, with Lamar rapping with a fierce intent.

Whenever he asked who had been a fan since day one, every single person there screamed meaninglessly but when he did return for an encore of A.D.H.D from Section 80, you could almost believe it.

Whether you were there to turn up, marvel at his skill or devour his messages, Lamar delivered for every fan in Sydney. Lamar’s skill as both a storyteller and a performer is unparalleled right now and there seems to be no limit to what he can do right now. It was a powerful, no-frills performance by a rapper who is the voice of this generation.

Photo by BCS Imaging