In the lead up to his newest album, 2022’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers and his most recent tour, Kendrick Lamar proved again, with singles such as “The Heart, Part 5,” that his music is an intricate existential puzzle whose individual pieces connect like tissue, like concentric circling narratives within narratives in which to broach a larger, more conceptual topic. These topics – the likes of which have won the rapper-writer a Pulitzer Prize – are, like the paintings of a Jean-Michel Basquiat: complexly cloistered in self-referential tics and Easter eggs, yet always touch on an emotionality that is as broad as it is insular and often more raw than sashimi.
To go with his deeply personal and multiple perspectives as a lyricist and floacist, the music, melodies and rhythms of Kendrick Lamar never look or sound the same way twice, even if its masterful storytelling is lived in and warm.
The heavenly free jazz and forward R&B of To Pimp a Butterfly, the Post G-Funk, Cali cool of Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, the roomy, plush-ly produced DAMN – all of these tones on tales present another surround-sound vision in which Lamar can play, pray or rant. When it comes to Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, however, all bets were off and all singular sounds and visions were out the window for a record far more frantic, musically and vocally, and far more erratic-ecstatic, lyrically. The glitchy twitching of “United in Grief” and “Purple Hearts,” the angst-manic bass-driven “N95,” the Mike Garson-esque piano-led “Rich – Interlude,” the maximal minimalism of “Worldwide Steppers,” a little wifty R&B there, and some incendiary hip hop there. That Kendrick Lamar has made such as mixed bag sonic effort to begin with, beyond his usual sniper-like focus, is, in and of itself, news worthy.
Add in a fear-and-loathing of all that is celebrated (“Rich Spirit”) and self-satisfactory (“Count Me Out”), the twists of one’s mental health (“Mother I Sober”) the keyhole peeking into family history (“Auntie Diaries”’ look at changing gender identity within his circle) and broken romance that only the closest couples keep to themselves (“We Cry Together”) and Kendrick Lamar’s evolving truth-as-literary theater is on full display.
Kendrick Lamar & Co. bring that angsty and angry conceptualism to the stage on his Big Steppers tour, a showcase that hit Philadelphia on August 9 with gigs in Boston, Toronto, ON, Detroit, Columbus, OH, Milwaukee and Chicago following immediately on its heels.
Considering that Lamar won his 2017 Pulitzer Prize for, in the nominating body’s words “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life,” the new tour showcase and its multiple spaces, shadows and moods tell stories that – though they each look and sound different – dovetail nicely into one proud tale by set’s finale.
Heavy on the shadow play – a long-used theatrical ploy and a therapeutic practice necessary for revealing deeply concealed truths and hidden connections – Lamar and a team of movement artists, before and behind the scrims, move through a two-hour set of weightily emotional work, and good old fashioned funky fun.
To the latter point, Lamar – dressed in a gorgeous black suit, diamond-rimmed glasses and a single bejeweled glove signaling shades of Michael Jackson – ran through rump shakers, old and new such as “family ties” with his cousin Baby Keem (whose opening set was as slyly seductive and chilling as Kendrick’s) “DNA.,” “LOYALTY.” and “Money Trees.”
With actress Helen Mirren’s voice an audience-guiding narrative device to knit together aspects of the psychology of “Mr. Morale”s morality tale (to say nothing of Eckhart Tolle’s fireside chat on identity and victimhood), Lamar rolls out the stoic epic, “Savior” as his concert’s beginning instrumental and its ending rager in a show of unifying his themes.
Between the “Savior” brackets, there are questions of who’s pulling the strings and who’s letting them loose when it comes to issues of identity on “United in Grief,” complete with Lamar performing with a look-a-like ventriloquist dummy. This was but one of the night’s several instances where the rapper was in conversation with whomever the real Kendrick might be (as on “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” where the rapper asked, “If I told you who I am, would you use it against me?”)
When it came to addressing the heartache of a romantic coupling’s aggressive distress (the argumentative “We Cry Together”), its rumination (“Count Me Out”) and its resolution (“Purple Hearts”), Lamar and his team of nattily dressed dancers and movement artists – big steppers with men in black suits and women in white suits – comport themselves behind scrims and screens and perform a brand of shadow puppetry as old as theater itself, and so fresh, it’s vividly new and alive.
Though the dancers donned hazmat suits and violently wielded flashlights in pursuit of its aggressor, theirs was usually a cool emotional counterpoint to that of the incendiary Lamar. While the movement artists drifted and folded with limbs akimbo in shadow for songs such as “LUST,” and “Silent Hill,” Lamar’s rubber, evocative staccato flow and soulful singing voice grew more powerful and loud as the night wore on – filled with theatrical rests and rapier-fast, hard punctuation on moments such as “Rich Spirit,” “Allright” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.”
And that, ultimately, was the point of the Big Stepping program – to show off its biggest steppers and bolded, most bruised voice, that of Kendrick Lamar’s at the tornado’s eye of his most powerful work yet.