- Kendrick Lamar delivered a championship-worthy performance Sunday at San Diego’s Mattress Firm Amphitheatre.
- The first hip-hop artist to ever win a Pulitzer Prize for music, he is headlining Top Dawg Entertainment’s North American Championship Tour.
- Lamar performed several songs Sunday from the “Black Panther” film soundtrack album, which he curated, including “All the Stars,” a duet with TDE label mate SZA.
- SZA’s 40-minute solo set showcased her powerful singing and ability to command attention performing intimate ballads in a large outdoor venue.
Kendrick Lamar knows how to deliver a winning punch — make that a night full of winning punches — without hurting a soul.
The virtuoso rapper and songwriter reinforced this point throughout his triumphant Sunday night concert at Mattress Firm Amphitheatre, the seventh stop on his “Top Dawg Entertainment: The Championship Tour.” That might be an immodest name for a concert trek, but if anyone in pop music right now can claim the mantle of a champion, it’s Lamar.
The Compton-born maverick kicked off 2018 by winning five Grammys, including the Best Rap Album trophy for his fourth studio release, “DAMN.” On April 16, Lamar became the first hip-hop artist to ever win a Pulitzer Prize.
That honor seemed to be conferred not just on him, but on hip-hop as a genre and dominant cultural force whose global impact has been both enormous and marginalized. In between his Grammys and Pulitzer, Lamar curated the chart-topping “Black Panther” soundtrack album, co-writing all of its 14 songs and performing on five of them.
Accordingly, the 19,942-capacity Mattress Firm Amphitheater was nearly full when he hit the stage Sunday. The loudly enthusiastic crowd was on its feet before Lamar came on and remained standing, dancing and singing along throughout his muscular, carefully paced 74-minute set.
That air of celebration was sustained throughout his 20-song performance, which began with “DNA” and finished with “Humble.” For the latter, he was joined by SZA, ScHoolboy Q and his other opening acts, all of whom record for TDE (as the 15-year-old Top Dawg Entertainment label is known by fans).
On record and in concert, the jittery “DNA” opens with a sample of Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera’s strident denunciation of Lamar’s performance of “Alright” during the 2015 BET Awards telecast.
Rivera objected to the song’s socially charged lyrics, which target police brutality and a variety of other timely issues. He was incensed that Lamar performed the song while standing atop a graffiti-covered police car, with a large American flag as a backdrop.
The TV veteran conveniently ignored the fact that “Alright’s” often grim lyrics and musical tone of dread are offset by a sense of hope and optimism that better days lie ahead. And he seemed equally oblivious that a key role of art is to provoke thought and discussion.
In one of “DNA’s” opening lines, Lamar declares: “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA.” That line neatly encapsulates the range of topics he addresses on his albums and on stage.
Race, religion, resistance, self-doubt, revolution, lust, paranoia, exultation — Lamar tackles all these and more with equal insight, wit and force. He knows how to expertly deliver a blow, even if he’s the target.
The 14-song “DAMN.” accounted for a third of the songs Lamar performed Sunday. Several more selections came from his 2012 breakthrough album, “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City.” Intriguingly, he chose to do only two numbers from his masterful 2015 album, “To Pimp a Butterfly.”
One of them, “King Kunta,” was an early highlight Sunday. So were the slinky “Goosebumps,” the herky-jerky “New Freezers” and the woozy “Swimming Pools (Drank),” each powerfully performed in succession about midway through his set.
“Diego! It’s been a long time since I’ve been down here,” Lamar said, shortly before launching into a propulsive version of “Alright” that inspired thousands of fans to jump up and down in time to the song’s sinuous groove.
Lamar was consistently charismatic, whether perched 20 feet above the stage or standing on it. Two of his four band members were positioned largely in the shadows on the left side of the stage, the other two on the right.
When Lamar faltered Sunday, it was by performing truncated versions of some of his most galvanizing songs. To cite one example, the lusty “Backseat Freestyle” was dispensed with in two minutes — less than half the length of its recorded version — a move that greatly diluted its dynamic tension.
Apart from some periodic pyrotechnic bursts, the only props used were a vintage grand prix race car, four black-and-white race flags and the red race driver’s suit worn by Lamar. His only nod to his recent historic achievement was when the enormous LED screen behind him displayed the words “Pulitzer Kenny” during the electrifying “Elements,” his second song of the night.
There were other ear- and eye-popping moments Sunday when sight and sound combined into a mighty whole. Alas, Lamar’s management did not allow any professional photographers to attend or document his concert here.
The focus was squarely on Lamar’s potent lyrics and remarkably agile vocals. His delivery was clearly articulated even when he delivered rapid-fire verses that suggested he has spent time absorbing the style and flow of such pioneering Jamaican toasters as U-Roy and King Stitt, or their latter-day acolytes, such as Bounty Killer.
Lamar also benefited from the clear, well-balanced sound mix, which — while undeniably loud — was never distorted or muddled. His band, which was anchored by rock-solid drummer Rico Nichols, provided a taut yet flexible foundation for Lamar’s vocals, which kicked up a notch when he was joined by fellow TDE rapper Jay Rock.
The two traded lines and performed in tandem on combustible versions of “Money Trees” and “King’s Dead,” two of the four songs performed from the “Black Panther” soundtrack. The fourth, the pop-savvy “All the Stars,” teamed Lamar with SZA for the evening’s penultimate selection.
SZA’s preceding 40-minute set Sunday showcased her strong, pliable singing — and her ability to command the attention of an audience in a sprawling amphitheater with introspective ballads that rarely translate in such a large outdoor setting.
But the biggest achievement was Lamar’s. Like no other hip-hop act since the heyday of the Pulitzer-worthy Public Enemy in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he is able to entertain and educate his listeners simultaneously, without diluting either aspect.
It’s a tricky balancing act for even the most experienced and talented of performers, let alone one as edgy and provocative as the take-no-prisoners Lamar.
If this polarized nation is ready to seriously discuss divisive racial and political issues, it need look no further than the songs of Kendrick Lamar to get the conversation started.