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In the Summer of 2011, I immediately started pushing Kendrick Lamar and Section 80 for album of the year, following a headlining showcase at S.O.B.’s. The venue is a tiny sweatbox in SoHo, one of the few small and affordable places left to catch emerging Hip Hop in New York. There were a ton of openers that night, a lot of weed smoke, and a wary-but-willing-to-be-won-over New York City crowd, ready to pounce at the first sign of weakness. It was the very sort of room a young rapper has to cut his teeth winning over, the exact size and type of show a rapper at Kendrick’s level should have been playing.
What I saw was a raw (in the best possible way), ferocious talent. There was little smiling, little between song banter, a DJ with a few standard cueing issues and a mic that needed adjusting. But what shone through was a serious, badass motherfucker. It’s a style I’m familiar with, having spent many nights watching Nas and Black Thought, and Rakim. These are no frills shows, beats and rhymes, often in mid-sized venues packed with adoring fans. The performances are deadly serious, the focus is on the wordplay, delivering the songs you came to hear, nodding with arms folded in place and going home. I imagine it’s the sort of experience Miles Davis fans had decades ago. I told you that to tell you this.
Please spend the requisite $50, (or whatever it may cost in your reasonably priced city) plus absurd processing charges and taxes, to see the Yeezus Tour. It’s well worth the money, for reasons anyone with a Facebook account, Twitter feed or Instagram addiction can attest. Kanye West has gone from the best live show in music, to an installation at MOMA. He can get away with spending his entire two hour set in a bedazzled Starman mask, playing an MPC on an alter, rapping sermons from a literal mountain top, accompanied by a Henson Company demon representing Kanye’s vices and fears, and a Greek Chorus of Harmony Korine stickup girls, performing choreography that lands somewhere between the self flagellating religious procession from The Seventh Seal and the poor unfortunate souls from The Little Mermaid. He can do this because he has the planet’s most diverse fan-base, that will follow him anywhere, he has the hits, and has transformed himself into the greatest non-“musical” live performer on Earth.
But Kendrick isn’t. Not on this evening, anyways. Tonight, he had a shaky set consisting of the majority of his fantastic Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, and a few guest verses that have received significant airplay. In theory, Kendrick should be a great ticket right now. I’d love to catch a TDE bill at B.B. King’s, or Highline Ballroom, or Best Buy Theater, or Roseland. The crew could open with, say, Nipsey Hustle or Earl Sweatshirt or a like-minded regional New York act, run through a few mini group sets, with Kendrick driving home a solo set rife with cuts off both his mixtape and album.
What I got tonight was Kendrick backed by a needlessly large, largely needless live band. A slick film of observed Compton minutiae, loosely revolving around the narrative his major label debut loosely told, played behind him. There was a shredding, Anthrax-y rendition of the title track and a set of high end looking smoke machines that carpeted the floor during “Sing About Me”, as I sat in a half-full basketball arena immersed in cigarette and eJoint smoke.
On this particular evening, a very different Kendrick Lamar was performing. He was eager, working the crowd like a good hype man, continually challenging one side of the stadium to be louder than the other and practically begging for crowd participation. He tried to sing the hooks on the songs that demanded it. He performed nothing off Section 80. I was sitting in a perch, high above Barclays in a pocket of the stadium that I chalked up to an acoustic nightmare during Kendrick’s set, the reason I could make out little of his vocals. However, the minute Kanye came on, having grown out of the full band from his Glow In The Dark tour, now content with a DJ, backup man and keyboardist, with his vocals and backing perfectly mixed, I knew I was mistaken.
Having Kendrick Lamar on the Yeezus tour makes a lot of sense for the tour, and Kanye’s brand. At the moment, Kendrick is a golden child, the thinking man’s future of rap, beloved by urban radio programming directors, Pitchfork writers and teenagers alike. Kanye brought out no guests this evening, and when you’re Kanye West, that’s a conscious decision. Kendrick has been curated as the one hour opening act to Yeezy’s full-length experience. But how much sense does it make for Kendrick Lamar, and how potentially corrosive to his growth, could the experience be?
I’ve seen Kanye live five times, at spaced out, appropriate junctures in his career. What I respect most looking back, was the very conscious progression in size and scale. He wasn’t born a black Bowie with delusions of Jagger, he worked towards it. The first show of his I ever attended was at the University of Maryland Student Union. It was Kanye, a DJ and some kid on the keys named John Legend, and it was free. He played his hits, he ranted, he was irritating and compelling, and tonight after the bejeweled mask came off and he pulled the old hits out, it wasn’t hard to see that eager to please, wildly talented artist is still alive in there. Kendrick’s show was a slick, overproduced mess. The product of a good kid trying to punch above his weight, coupled with a high-end stage designer and a backing band of session musicians who aren’t comfortable with the material.
You can argue in 2013, none of this matters. That the kids Kendrick is trying to draw with his participation on this tour have already been won, simply by having his name printed under Kanye West on the ticket. And maybe that is so, but I wonder what kind of an education this process is making for a young artist who should be finding his true audience, developing his voice and honing his craft. Is pandering to the LCD, working with stage designers and playing arenas the ideal he should be striving towards at this juncture in his career? Could this prematurely bloated ambition play out in his music?
It brings to mind another young artist I saw opening for Kanye West five years ago, on his similarly astonishing Glow In The Dark tour. He was a bright young talent, coming off a second consecutive promising effort. He had crossover potential, a brain as well as an ear, appealing to critics and kids alike. He got a coveted placement on the tour, nestled securely under Kanye’s wing, and the sky was the limit. His name was Lupe Fiasco.