Photos by Julia Schur
To paraphrase the good kid himself, Kendrick Lamar came to Governor’s Ball to party. While he certainly did just that, he couldn’t help but reach for more. Leading off with the near-forgotten yet energetic “West Side Right On Time”, followed by “Hol’ Up”, “Pussy & Patron”, “Fuckin Problems” and the remix of Young Jeezy’s “R.I.P.”, K.Dot clearly was pushing the themes of celebration and all that comes with it, and doing so while reaching out to the wider audience that festivals bring by employing some of his prolific guest work. Before beginning “Hol’ Up” and again before “P&P”, Kendrick made a point of asking who in the audience had been fans from day one; who would rock out and rap along to hits from his lesser known work on Section.80 and Overly Dedicated. The crowd would have gotten an A in enthusiasm but a C in knowledge, which hurt the energy as some people seemed thrown by the inclusion of “West Side Right On Time” and “Pussy & Patron”.
Ever the poet and perfectionist, Kendrick was not content to simply convince the crowd that NYC was the most hype city in the country, or rattle chests to the point of near-heart-attack with “m.a.a.d. city”. Kendrick’s live performance, much like his recorded work held a focus on lyrics and cohesion. To bring a greater attention to his words, Kendrick cut the beat at the end of several songs so that he could rap the most recent verse over again in perfect clarity, accompanied by the crowd.
To give the slew a songs a sense of interconnectedness, Kendrick went on several short rants, each ending with either on the topic of next track or its title—a faux-worried tangent about the crowd’s energy level led into “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe”; an invitation to drink with the star after the show preceded “Swimming Pools (Drank)”. By almost conversationally introducing each song, Kendrick lent not only a sense of improvisation—epitomized in his four-bar freestyle ending with the words “fucking problem”; cue the beat—but also that the lyrics and melodies we were hearing were the story of that very afternoon on Randall’s Island; that Kendrick had selected each track to be a cog in the real-time narration of the festival’s most consistently alive set.
Kendrick was Governor’s Ball’s most commanding, most engaging Master of Ceremonies. To ensure that his hour and fifteen minute set was the most energetic of the festival, Kendrick made a point of connecting with his audience, playing with their expectations and challenging to get loud, then get louder. Kendrick separated the crowd into thirds and reattached them with the swiftness of an aged conductor, and the frenzy of “m.A.A.d. city”’s narrator, raising and lowering them with one confident, swooping black motion after the next.
Kendrick repeatedly expressed his wish to have a good time, as if he was an audience member who had just happened to launch on stage. That’s not to say, however, that he’s remained the average joe he once made himself out to be, though. Kendrick rocked the Honda Stage wearing a scaly-looking black and white hoodie and matching baggy shorts, looking, head-to-toe like the lovechild of A$AP Rocky and a king cobra. The odd outfit led a nearby audience member to remark that he “can’t relate to that shit”, but this fan was still ready to cheer when Kendrick satisfied the hip-hop heads, calling freestyling “the essence of hip-hop”. It’s other essence may be the art of reanimating, something Kendrick also took part in during his set, as he regularly changed his delivery to be more free-flowing and melodic. This helped to make the performance feel unique and helped show, along with his mastery of improvisation and conversation, Kendrick’s ascension to artistry beyond air-sealed preparation, into heights of transcendent connection with his audience and his music. Kendrick Lamar is not beyond the party, though. Instead, he’s taking it with him.
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