Kendrick Lamar’s Big Steppers Tour is a work of art (Barclays Center night 2 review)
From the moment that Kendrick Lamar appeared on stage at Saturday night's (8/6) Barclays Center stop of The Big Steppers Tour -- his second of two consecutive nights at the Brooklyn arena and second of three NYC-area shows this weekend -- you could tell that he was about to put on the show of a lifetime, and he spent the next 90 minutes or so doing exactly that. I've seen Kendrick put on a number of life-affirming shows over the years, but the Big Steppers Tour is on an entirely different level, and unlike anything else he's ever done. Not that anything less would be expected from the first rapper to win a Pulitzer Prize, but the whole experience was like high art, from the intense choreography and remarkable dancers to the shapeshifting aesthetic of the stage setup to the storyline that tied the entire setlist together. It was too thrilling to ever feel pretentious, and no matter how artsy things got, it was still just as much of a rap show as the ones Kendrick used to play in clubs and warehouses with just him and a DJ. And just the pure act of watching Kendrick rap remains one of the most stunning things you can witness in a live music setting. The props and dancers and costume changes aren't crutches to make up for anything, they just added so much awe-inspiring imagery to what would've been a great rap show regardless.
Like Kendrick's new album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, the show began with "United In Grief," with the song's opening line "I hope you find some peace of mind in this lifetime" played over the PA as Kendrick's dancers marched down the runway towards the curtain-covered stage. When the curtain fell, it revealed a stage setup that mirrored the therapy session theme of the album, with a dimly lit bed and nightstand. On the other side of the stage was a piano that had a ventriloquist dummy sitting on it, and a man playing the piano, with his back facing the stage. That man was Kendrick himself, as everyone in Barclays Center realized once he opened his mouth to start rapping. When he got to the song's livelier second half, Kendrick stood front and center stage at a mic stand with the ventriloquist dummy, who was rapping along. And when he went right into the album's second song, its single "N95," it turned into a straight-up rap show with everyone in the room shouting along. He'd already shown off so many different sides of this show, and he was just two songs in.
Kendrick started the show with the same one-two punch that opens the album, but The Big Steppers Tour never mirrored Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers entirely. After those first two songs, he went into a string of older fan-faves, and every song he played -- whether it was an old one or a new one -- fit perfectly into the sequence of the show. The show had a narrator, playing the role of Kendrick aka Mr. Morale's therapist, and that helped give the show a storyline that continued throughout. The narrative was similar but not identical to that of the new album, and like the album is, the show itself felt like one grand concept. Some concerts consist of nothing more than an artist getting up on stage and performing their songs live, but Kendrick clearly crafted this show to be not just a live performance but its own piece of art. It's the kind of show that really deserves a concert film, or at least a live album. It's just as cohesive and conceptual as any of Kendrick's albums in its own way.
Kendrick's 20+ song setlist was pretty much split in half between Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers songs and older songs, and the older songs were often worked into the narrative of the show just as seamlessly as the new ones. "DNA" and "Loyalty" worked perfectly with the therapy theme, and "Alright" was re-contextualized as a response to COVID; during the show, Kendrick "gets COVID," and is then put into a quarantine bubble along with four people in hazmat suits. Then he plays "Alright" as his way of saying "We're gonna get out of this eventually too." The older songs got the biggest crowd responses of the night, but the new songs went over really well too. Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers is one of the most remarkable albums released this year, but I admittedly did wonder if the songs would translate well live; the album is such an immersive experience and not really focused on crowdpleasing singalongs. So I was pleasantly surprised to see how many songs on the new album actually did turn into crowdpleasing singalongs in a live setting. The hooks are a little sneakier on the new album, but they're there and they can sound just as huge as his longtime fan faves. And when he did get to the parts that were more about intently listening to him rap, he didn't miss a word or a beat, and those verses landed with impact.
The Big Steppers Tour was often as high-energy as any past Kendrick tour. Sometimes, he'd be rapping his ass off, surrounded by dancers, with blasts of pyro going off behind him. Other times, he'd be leading the crowd in a singalong of a song so classic he didn't even need to sing it himself. For a few songs, he was in an elevated cube, several feet above the stage. But this tour also had moments more somber than any Kendrick tour in the past. He did the mesmerizing "Father Time" sitting down in a chair, and returned to the piano for a quiet yet show-stopping rendition of "Crown." It made for a show with wider range than any past Kendrick show, and every ambitious decision was earned, no moment was wasted.
Towards the end of the show Kendrick brought out his opening acts as guests, Baby Keem and Tanna Leone, both of whom appear on Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers and both of whom are signed to Kendrick's new pgLang company. Keem and Kendrick did "Family Ties," their instant-classic collaboration from Keem's 2021 album The Melodic Blue, aided by tons of pyro, and the crowd ate up every second of it, which came as no surprise since Keem's own set had the place going nuts too. It was obviously Kendrick's night, but Keem proved that he's also a rising star, and if you didn't enter the show as a Keem fan you probably left as one. Kendrick also brought out Tanna Leone to do his parts on "Mr. Morale" (also with a good amount of pyro), and that was a treat too. Tanna's opening set was short but sweet, clocking in at just about 15 minutes, but that was enough time to leave an impression and get us warmed up for a great show.
Watch a fan-shot, full-set video of the show and check out the full setlist below. Kendrick's NYC-area run wraps up at UBS Arena on Sunday (8/7).
United in Grief
Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe
Count Me Out
family ties (Baby Keem song, with Baby Keem)
Mr. Morale (with Tanna Leone)