Glastonbury saved the best for last. In a weekend that had seen Paul McCartney duet with Bruce Springsteen, Olivia Rodrigo bring out Lily Allen and a blue-haired Jack White play a scintillating surprise set on the Other Stage, a little rapper from Compton vapourised them all.
From the second he walked on stage accompanied by 20 dancers (all Black, half men, half women) and ignited into the opening bars of “United in Grief”, it was apparent this was not going to be any ordinary performance.
It very nearly happened two years ago, when Lamar was first announced as headline for the Pyramid Stage, but Covid-19 wielded the axe on that, just as it did on everything else we love about society. It of course begs the question, what kind of performance the world would have seen in 2020.
There would have been a different Kendrick, one who hadn’t spent two years locked away with his thoughts in his Los Angeles home and of course a very different album (there must have been one to announce the slot).
But 2022 Kendrick is what Glastonbury got. There were no special appearances from Eminem or Baby Keem or any of his Top Dawg family – just Kendrick in his impervious glory. It was unlike anything the biggest stage in music had ever seen before. It was revelatory and evolutionary, a benchmark for stage performance.
It felt like watching The Rolling Stones in 1969 or Elvis in ‘68. The relatively short set (certainly in comparison to McCartney’s the night before) was an intense, cohesive roll around Kendrick’s universe. And Glastonbury will never be the same again.
“I am not your saviour” King Kendrick raps on festival closer “Savior” pulling himself down as a false idol; he’s just as fallible as the rest of us. In essence, that’s the crux of Lamar’s latest album and headline appearance – he’s just a man, a husband and father making his way in the world but specifically he is a Black man, a rapper of incomparable talent, fighting through the fires of racism and fame to find some kind of peace among the chaos of 21st Century life.
The Glastonbury performance almost felt like the end of Kendrick’s quest, the culmination of twenty years of rapping, the fulfillment of his art. In front of tens of thousands of fans, Lamar was a vulnerable image, self-searching as he tackled themes such as mental health, addiction, abuse, racism, violence, fame, inequality and misogyny. He reached a level of introspectiveness that just isn’t found in a live performance while still thrilling a euphoric crowd that were hypnotised by the theatricality on display.
The virtuoso rapper, to rap what Charlie Parker was to the sax, has barely been seen in public over the last six years, save for an appearance at the Super Bowl half-time show in February. In that time, Lamar looked inwards – and inwards some more. What the Worthy Farm audience and the millions watching at home saw, was an artist abandoned from vanity yet spreading the gospel. It was worth the wait.
Lamar’s headline set was more visual art installation than any rap show. With the kind of synchronised choreography pop stars of the past and present such as Michael Jackson, Britney Spears and Dua Lipa use to scintillate, Lamar audaciously turns into an abstract interpretative dance.
There’s a stillness yet a gentle lyricism to the dancing and the dancers are the only other people apart from the rapper on stage all night. There’s no Springsteen or Grohl here, just Kendrick and his Pulitzer Prize-winning body of work.
Having the dancers is also greatly beneficial for Lamar the performer, who while a magnetic stage presence, is introverted, giving the audience little to feed off in terms of interaction other than the odd monosyllabic shout of “right”.
There’s a particular moment during his performance of “N95” where the stage dissipates into darkness and the dancers converge to shine torches on a lonely Lamar, a man at ease with his fame and wealth, standing in the world. It’s a simple moment, one of the less dramatic during the 90-minute performance, but it embodies the overarching themes of empathy and understanding.
Religion has always been symbiotic with Lamar’s rap. good kid, m.A.A.d city began with a version of the Sinner’s Prayer and here, with the biggest performance of his career, Lamar brought the love and violence of Christianity.
It comes fresh from his reckoning with his faith on Mr Morale & the Big Steppers, particularly as it relates to the church’s antiquated views on gender and sexuality while also using the strength faith provides by gaining some inner resilience to be a better man, most directly regarding his adultery.
The most overt reference to the Bible, of course came in Lamar’s appearance. The crown of thorns – Christianity’s most enduring image to mock the power of Christ – was fixed to Lamar’s head throughout the show. Made by Tiffany & Co., the 137 carat, diamond-jewelled crown is repurposed by Lamar, not as part of some Kanye West-like messiah complex but as a symbol of Black America’s centuries long suffering.
He endures sin, both of his oppressors but also his own, interrogating his own prejudice as well as everyone else’s. Lamar, over a backdrop of violent rhymes, telling stories of both personal affliction and state sanctioned terror police brutality, is an image of suffering and forgiveness; the crown that tortured Jesus in his last days served as a metaphor for the crimes committed against Black people – racism, police brutality, wealth inequality, murder, slavery. So bold, but also a forward-looking plea for progress.
The Set List
Kicking off with the machine gun flow of Mr Morale & the Big Steppers opener ‘United in Grief’, you could be mistaken for expecting a set heavily weighted towards new material – especially given the fluid cohesiveness of Lamar’s fifth album made it perfect for an uninterrupted run through.
Instead, Lamar brought the hits, blowing through bombastic statements such as ‘Humble’, ‘Alright’ and ‘Money Trees’, all of which seemed to have a heightened drama when performed live. From ‘United in Grief’, he seamlessly bounced into the raucous ‘m.A.A.d city’ in a set list that almost chronologically tracked his career from Dr Dre-endorsed upstart to today’s singular rap God.
There was nothing from the pre-major label days so Section.80 classics such as ‘HiiiPower’ and ‘Ronald Reagan Era’ were absent but the flow of the show was tight, both sonically and thematically.
The middle third in particular, which lent heavily on the fearsome jazz funk of To Pimp a Butterfly, ventured into something of a party at the end of the world with Lamar as the self-appointed messiah leading the masses to the promised land.
The apocalyptic reggae hook of ‘The Blacker the Berry’ rages from the gut against injustice; ‘DNA’ is a peerless example of rapping dexterity, verbose and effusive, made even more electrifying when watching Lamar enunciate every syllable with seemingly impossible skill. ‘Swimming Pool’, his most audience friendly hit buzzes with its call and repeat intro. The occasionally tough festival crowd needed no winning over, they were always Kendrick’s.
“They judge you, they judge Christ, godspeed for women’s rights,” Kendrick Lamar howls with righteous despair over and over again as blood drowns his face and virginal white shirt, the glittering silver crown of thorns a weight on his head.
It’s an image that conjures thoughts of the biblical pain of a Caravaggio painting or the masculine self-immolation of a Paul Schrader film. It’s maybe the most theatrical moment in the Pyramid Stage’s history. One that is utterly unforgettable for its peerless virtuosity.
— KENDRICK LAMAR BIBLE (@dakendrickbible) June 26, 2022
It’s captures the dissonance of humanity’s hypocrisy. Lamar pleas for the emancipation of women while his album features accused sexual assaulter Kodak Black. He affirms his faith in God while blaspheming Jesus’ image for commercial purposes.
It’s the paradox of man, even more notable in this social media age of absolutes where nuance has been left to die. “Imperfection is beauty,” he says. This is a man, an artist, laid bare in glory and flaw, so bold as to admit sin and, in the oldest of Christian traditions, search for some kind of redemption.
As the blood stains his shirt red, Lamar, breathless and emotional, looks over the Worthy Farm crowd. The king came and he conquered. He drops the microphone and shuffles quietly off stage. We’ll probably see him again in another six years.