Hip-hop is changing the guard. Like an urban Game of Thrones, each stronghold puts up its champion: Danny Brown from Detroit, Meek Mill from Philadelphia, Future from Atlanta, A$AP Rocky from New York. None has been quite so heralded as LA’s – and specifically its notoriously gang-related satellite Compton’s – Kendrick Lamar. His major label debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city, was 2012’s most revered rap album. Pharrell Williams calls him “this era’s Bob Dylan”; the sold-out crowd who braved London’s icy slush to see him on Sunday would be content with a worthy successor to Tupac Shakur. The 25-year-old did not disappoint.
With just a DJ for support, he bounded onto the large stage in a collarless leathery shirt and a beanie emblazoned “Compton”. He came not to praise gangsta tropes but used them to bury the assumption that anyone hailing from the mean streets must necessarily go to the bad. Those familiar only with his more softly spoken style on good kid, m.A.A.d city might have been taken aback by his vocal’s caustic muscularity. Yet most people here had been with him since the start. He rewarded them with early material such as “Cut You Off (To Grow Closer”) and songs from his harder-edged first album, Section 80.
A fine storyteller, Lamar was also a commanding performer, a cappella runs and speedy skits highlighting his verbal dexterity. If rap-show dynamics share something with those of a political rally – all arms in the air and on-message chanting – he worked the room with aplomb, being both the candidate, with winning false modesty, and his own hype man. The three-fingered salute that denotes his credo of “heart, honour and respect” was liberally thrown up long before its signature anthem, “HiiiPoWeR”, brought the house down. Inevitably, the bass distorted at times as if the subwoofer had indigestion; at others, though, sinuous G-Funk and woozy synth sounds seeped into the mix like depleted uranium.
On “Swimming Pools (Drank)”, the lyrics’ cautionary aspects were lost to a celebratory fervour, as with the subtler meanings of other recent tracks such as “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Backseat Freestyle”. But then Lamar had often insisted: “This isn’t a concert, it’s a party.” Outside, they were hawking “King of the West” T-shirts. After a crazily received encore, “Cartoon and Cereal”, this snowy part of London already felt like part of his realm.