Making my way through the crowds of “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” t-shirts and super matte lipsticks, I arrive to my seat in the Oracle Arena just as D.R.A.M. shimmies onto the stage. Smiling in his purple cap and green sweater, the singer-rapper instantly charms the audience with his soulful voice and tongue-in-cheek lyrics. “I like the way you move / I saw you from across the bar / And I am not of Spanish descent / But I’m fucked up so that’s just the way I talk,” he sings in “Cha Cha,” doing a small but gleeful cha cha dance of his own. He grooves and twists during his entire set, and at one point dances all the way into the general audience, grinning the whole time. His final song of the night is a slowed-down, dramatic interpretation of “Broccoli,” and in his parting goodbye he thanks the crowd “for rockin’ with me, for fuckin’ with me.”
The second act of the night is Travis Scott. Prior to this show, I had never paid attention to his music. But Scott’s stage presence is a force to be reckoned with, and when he marched onto the stage growling, “For those of you don’t know, my name is Travis Fucking Scott, and I came here to fucking rage,” he demanded and held my attention for the rest of the night.
Scott appears to subscribe to the philosophy that “more is more.” His set is filled with smoke machines and flashing colorful lights. Projections of flaming, galloping horses and stone gargoyle versions of the rapper light up Oracle Arena. About a third of the way through his performance, an enormous red-eyed hawk holding a torn bear arm in its claw descended from the ceiling. Scott climbed the hawk and proceeded to sing while standing on top of the animal, who drifted around the stage and surrounding area for the remainder of the set.
And then there is Scott himself. Screaming and thrashing around the stage (and later around the hawk), Scott’s personality is so charged with furor that it’s awe-inspiring. His auto-tuned voice both tones down his torrential rage and makes his music more sinister. His lyrics sound like poisonous curses he’s unleashing, adding a vicious magnificence to everything from “Butterfly Effect” to “Love Galore.” Before concluding his set with “goosebumps,” Scott faces the audience and says, “Goddammit I’m sorry our time has come to an end.”
While crew members set up for Kendrick and dismantle Travis Scott’s bird, a black veil hid the stage from the audience. Suddenly, the lights dim, the background music ceases, and the veil drops, revealing an empty stage and a glaring, white spotlight. From a hidden platform built into the floor, Kendrick rises from the ground, kneeling silently in a yellow track suit. The crowd erupts in applause and praise, and as pyrotechnics begin to crackle behind the artist, Kendrick breaks into “DNA.”
“I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA,” Kendrick shouts, with heavy beats in the background amplifying the song’s ferocity. The rapper jumps around and radiates intense energy like his opening acts, but unlike Travis Scott, Kendrick’s moves have streamlined control. He wields his emotionality, rather than the other way around; his performance is less like a riot and more like an impassioned orchestration.
Kendrick’s set list is invigorating hit after hit after hit. “ELEMENT.” segues into “King Kunta,” which then segues into his verse from Future’s “Mask Off.” The songs are so spirited, so ideal for listeners to blindly scream and chant along, that it is easy to forget that Kendrick’s verses are imbued with sharply contemplative lyrics. On the bridge of “LOYALTY.”, Kendrick asks, “Tell me who you loyal to / Is it money? Is it fame? Is it weed? Is it drink?” In “ELEMENT.”, Kendrick asserts, “I don’t do it for the ‘Gram, I do it for Compton.”
Almost always, Kendrick is alone on stage. The only exception to this is when a single dancer runs out and “fights” Kendrick, as part of the rapper’s “Kung Fu Kenny” narrative. Occasionally, the two duel on stage in a martial arts-inspired choreography sequence. In his performance of “PRIDE.”, the dancer holds up a supine Kendrick as he raps, “In a perfect world, I’ll choose faith over riches / I’ll take work over bitches.” Keeping with the minimalistic visuals, Kendrick’s stage is bare. Its white floors reflect the white lights shining down on him, and the only source of color in The Damn. Tour experience comes from Kendrick’s bright tracksuit. Without any distracting theatrics, the audience’s attention is completely focused on Kendrick himself, and he is more than ready for our stares, balancing vehemence and poise as he paces the stage reciting rhymes.
Above all, the most surprising aspect of Kendrick’s performance was his humility, despite his line “I can’t fake humble just ‘cause your ass is insecure” from “PRIDE.”. For a man dominating a music genre characterized by flaunting wealth or chains or side hoes, Lamar doesn’t act like he is superior to his audience. He repeats in between songs, “It feels good to see y’all, it’s good to be back in Oakland,” and at times, he even appears genuinely amazed at the number of people cheering him on. (In contrast, when I saw Kanye West live, I could not shake the feeling that Kanye felt that he was doing the audience a favor by showing up and performing.)
Expressing his gratitude at the end of the show, Kendrick says, “I got so much love for y’all. Y’all allow me to express myself on the stage and I wanna give back to y’all and give you a hell of a show.” Then he closes out the concert with one final song, “GOD.” As his words, “Seen it all, done it all, felt pain more / For the cause, I done put blood on sword” reverberate across the arena, Kendrick ends his night the same way he began it -– with self-assured, powerful, and unforgettable simplicity.