In the decades since hip-hop’s conception, artists have taken transformative steps when it comes to conveying stories. Although the genre has always been associated with innovation and multiple media, the scale of performance has evolved more slowly. For years, less was more was the formula when it came to the live show: rapper, DJ and hypeman were the trifecta. Today, Kendrick Lamar demonstrates how far hip-hop has come with his current tour, The Big Steppers Tour, performance art at its finest.
Before Kendrick Lamar and PgLang took the stage in Washington on Thursday night (August 4), Tanna Leone and Baby Keem, both members of PgLang’s crew, laid it down using dramatically different visuals. Leone, the newest signing to the self-cultivated record label PgLang, opened the show with songs from his April 2022 album Sleepy Soldier, treating fans to a mix of ambient lighting, alternating monochromatic visual effects and a refreshing vocal approach.
Baby Keem led off his set with ‘trademark usa’, the intro to 2021’s ‘The Melodic Blue’, contrasting the visual direction by wearing a white shirt, long black tie and black trousers. The outfit matched the syncopated white flashing lights set against an often dark stage as Baby Keem belted out hit after hit including ‘range brothers’, ‘ORANGE SODA’, ‘hooligan’ and ‘HONEST’.
Kendrick Lamar began his performance with a stage designed to look like a therapist’s office. This setting echoes the complex emotional themes explored in his “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” and he dove head first into the narrative – wielding a ventriloquist dummy to perform the album’s stellar opener, “United In Grief” to illustrate the emotional portrait painted by “Mr. morality. The therapist can be heard throughout the set.
Light and shade take center stage in Mr. Morale’s story, as the images depicted range from the bickering couple featured in the heated track “We Cry Together,” resolving their issues through “Purple Hearts” and lamenting the losses but never not accepting defeat in “Count Me” Out. The overall concept fits together perfectly – “Shadow work”, or inner work and change, is a common practice in various therapeutic spaces, demonstrating the depths to which Kendrick uses art to create a new level of connectedness.
Adding another element to the performance’s palette of styles, the dancers led the audience through the music with movement and movement. One word was overwhelmingly prevalent in every step, stride, and glide performed by these form leaders: intent. The dancers moved through songs like ‘N95’ and ‘Silent Hill’, merging together in a mind-blowing audio/visual moment of shadow and sound for the song ‘LUST’. from Kendrick’s 2017 album, “DAMN.” Lamar’s rendition of “Crown,” the heavy piano at the center of “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers”, pointed out the rapper himself on the keys.
In the territory of being a megastar, it’s essential to perform rocking rooms, of which Kendrick Lamar has an abundance. But, as noted, the unexpected nature of this set always allows for a twist. Performing from a levitating quarantine room, longtime fans were thrilled to hear some of their favorite songs like “DNA.”, “Money Trees,” “LOYALTY.”, “Backseat Freestyle,” and “Family Ties” with Cousin Baby Keem.
To cap off this incredible display of sights and sounds, Lamar performed the standout track from “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers,” “Savior,” proving once again that his high artistry is paving an unimpeded path to hip-hop’s Mount Rushmore. His “Big Steppers Tour” is another statement of intent, taking genre performance and music in general to new heights.