Walking onto the light rail around 7 p.m., I noticed several people obviously headed to the same place as me. Five teens in crop tops chatted about rappers YG and D.R.A.M. On the other side of the train, one girl faced her friend. “I have to get a T-shirt,” she told him. “At Kendrick? I have to.” They might not have known then, but when we got off at Central, it was clear; we, along with about 15,000 others, were all headed to see Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. Tour at the Xcel Energy Center.
It was a night to remember, just by virtue of sharing a room with one of today’s greatest musicians. The title of “greatest rapper alive” has been swirling around Lamar since he released jazz-rap masterpiece To Pimp A Butterfly in 2015, and as local media have noted, Rolling Stone crowned him as such this month. You’d expect such a luminary to delivered a tight, striking performance, and that’s exactly what happened.
Lamar stood alone on the Xcel stage. Sometimes, he performed opposite a ninja-dancer with a katana, as befitting his Kung Fu Kenny persona. Screens broadcast a series of cartoons, in which the “Black Turtle” battled a nefarious snake. And for an incredible few minutes, he performed “PRIDE.” horizontally suspended above another person, both dressed in all red. But most of the time, he worked the crowd on his own. After hearing live drums, I located supporting musicians off stage left, but I intuitively understood the decision to keep others off the stage. Kendrick was the show.
As opening pyrotechnics set the tone, I expected to be swept away by literal and figurative firepower. But what really sold me were the quieter moments: a lovely “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “LOVE.” dedicated to a baby in the audience. “PRIDE.” triggered one of those moments when you sit down in church and cry. When the “Money Trees” beat dropped, one girl threw her arms up and faced the ceiling like it’d just started to rain.
In the upper deck, intelligible sound was hard to come by, so I didn’t catch most of Lamar’s conversation with the crowd. In fact, I struggled to stay connected with the more hype songs from such a great distance, especially with the arena reverb. But when the whole crowd rapped “HUMBLE.” with little assistance from Lamar (after which he repeated the song on the mic), I couldn’t help but smile. The audience went wild for “King Kunta,” Kendrick’s snippet of Future remix “Mask Off,” and especially good kid, m.a.a.d city cut “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.”
Back to that pre-show transit: I don’t remember running into so many fans since I took the train to Beyoncé at TCF Bank. And just as that show featured a performer at the top of her game — not to mention the game — last night’s concert saw Kendrick showing off an already-classic catalog and inimitable style. I often struggled to connect from the cheapest seats. But in the quieter moments, I felt the warm thrill that comes when you recognize a legend.