Kendrick Lamar's Philly show: Humble, but 'DAMN.' good

Music Kendrick Lamar
FILE – In this Aug. 27, 2016 file photo, Kendrick Lamar performs at FYF Fest in Los Angeles. Lamar’s third official studio album, "DAMN." has sold over 1 million albums in just three weeks, and has spent all three weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s 200 albums chart.

For a guy who has made a living lately telling people to “sit down, be humble,” rapper Kendrick Lamar sure doesn’t have to be.

After all, the Compton, Calif.-born emcee currently is riding high off the release of his fourth studio album, DAMN. A critical and commercial success rooted in Lamar’s newfound post-To Pimp A Butterfly stardom, the album has gone double-platinum following an April release. This week, the record was named the most popular album this year so far, according to a Nielsen study of modern music trends.

That’s worth celebrating. But don’t expect to see any hints of foolish pride in Lamar’s earnest, electrifying live show.

None were present Wednesday, at least, when the “Humble” hitmaker brought his fledgling “DAMN. Tour” to the Wells Fargo Center with openers D.R.A.M. and Travis Scott. Rather, Lamar was more concerned with making sure the packed house would be “getting [their] money’s worth,” as he told the crowd partway through his performance.

And for the most part, they did. In his first Philadelphia performance since a 2015 gig at the comparatively tiny Trocadero, the rapper blazed through a nearly 90-minute set replete with hits going back to 2012’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. He did lean heavily on DAMN., playing 10 of the album’s 14 tracks.

Performing as alter ego Kung-Fu Kenny (a reference to Don Cheadle’s character in Rush Hour 2), Lamar took the stage dressed in a yellow, Bruce Lee-style tracksuit as a callback to 1972’s unfinished Game of Death. He kicked things off with a literal bang, with an explosion that reverberated throughout the Wells Fargo Center, before launching into DAMN.‘s “DNA.” Subtle, no, but effective.

Making good on his reputation as a verbal tactician, Lamar also expertly delivered renditions of hits, including “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “King Kunta, “Alright,” and “HUMBLE” with only minor breath control and sound issues, as are common in live arena hip-hop. Most fans stood on their chairs and collectively danced hard enough to shake Wells Fargo Center’s seating, regardless of what song was playing. Maybe Lamar showing up at his Ubiq pop-up shop in Center City earlier in the day to greet fans had something to do with it.

The backdrop of the show, for the most part, was as serious as Lamar’s staid lyricism. Dominated by lights and a video screen, the set featured a mostly solo Lamar amid clips of martial-arts imagery and a constant verbal and visual reminder that “ain’t nobody praying for me,” a refrain from DAMN.’s “FEEL.” That last one is perhaps Lamar’s reminder to himself — an ego check as thousands of people scream his bars back at him.

There was some flair, however. In one moment, Lamar hung suspended horizontally above a dancer, the two laying parallel to one another in red jumpsuits during the rapper’s performance of “PRIDE.” In another, he disappeared from the main stage in a blackout, only to reappear on top of a smaller, light-up stage on the middle of the arena for “LUST.” and “Money Trees.”

Midway through the show, the stage’s massive video screen pivoted overhead, shrinking the performance area’s height and drawing the focus even closer on the rapper for a more intimate feel. Lamar also reinforced his Kung-Fu Kenny character with 1970s-style martial-arts shorts featuring the alter ego’s exploits that were played throughout breaks in the performance. Pyrotechnics were minimal.

If there were problems, they came primarily from the audience. One young man, for example, jumped down to the arena floor seating during the performance of “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.” Several red-shirted members of the Wells Fargo Center security staff — who either weren’t listening to the song, or just didn’t agree with its message — quickly ejected him.

In another rehearsed, somewhat more successful moment, written about in other reviews, Lamar let the audience take over “HUMBLE.” from the end of the song’s first verse into the chorus. After a long pause, Lamar smiled but appeared somewhat let down by the Philly crowd, saying, “for sure we can top that” before adding “we’re warmed up now, let’s get it” and restarting the verse.

Lamar’s mostly stark set contrasted strongly against opener Travis Scott’s psychedelic, punk rock-inspired spectacle. From the top of the show, Scott, who came out smoking a blunt, was confrontational with Wells Fargo Center security, telling them they “can’t stop people from turning up; that’s not how we rock” as people began to rush the stage.

After that, Scott literally ascended into the air on the back of a gigantic golden eagle suspended from the rafters of the Wells Fargo Center. An animatronic device with glowing red eyes, the eagle served as Scott’s stage for about two-thirds of the show, which included renditions of hits “Butterfly Effect” and “Goosebumps.” God bless him, he didn’t stick on the Philadelphia Eagles connection long enough to make much of a joke.

While Scott seemed to leave the stage abruptly, Lamar lingered for an encore featuring “GOD.,” what he called his one of his favorite songs from DAMN. But before leaving Philly with the track, K-Dot showed the City of Brotherly Love some love back.

“I appreciate y’all from the bottom of my heart,” he said. Given Lamar’s focus on being humble in his art and performance, it felt like he meant it, if only in that moment. The crowd, however, wasn’t concerned with the authenticity of the rapper’s thanks — they just wanted another chance to tear the roof off the arena.

And just like he did throughout the rest of the night, Lamar delivered.