ACL Review: Kendrick Lamar

Superstar MC grapples with superstardom in real time

Amidst a sea of ACL Festival-goers watching his Saturday night headlining set at the Samsung stage, Kendrick Lamar spoke to an audience of one.

Photo by David Brendan Hall

“You said you could do what I do on this stage?” he asked bemusedly of a belligerent attendee who dared to antagonize the rapper. “Watch this. Try to keep up.”

The 29-year-old Compton MC ripped into “For Free?,” the scat-rap tour de force off To Pimp a Butterfly that combines furious jazz drumming, runaway piano, and monstrous horns. He rapped with dizzying precision, face glistening with sweat, never breaking eye contact with his victim. Even before applause from the far-as-the-eye-could-see throng subsided, the rapper had moved on to the sinister funk flex of “Wesley’s Theory.”

This unrelenting takedown proved one of myriad moments of unadulterated glory in Lamar’s 90-minute set, evidence that the Top Dawg Entertainment signee is at his best when asserting dominance over his competition. His body count ranges from Drake and J. Cole to Kanye West, all of whom he so handily surpasses in terms of technical ability that there’s no need for comparison.

Tonight, K-Dot reigned as the undisputed champion, so he battled against the only enemy left: himself.

In contrast to last year’s intimate Austin City Limits taping, Lamar returned to Zilker Park a headliner after giving voice to the festival’s true demographic – Austin youth – with a breakout set at ACL Fest 2013. He strutted the length of the massive stage and summoned applause from each quadrant of the mostly white audience, backed by towering lights, billowing smoke, and pillars of flames. His virtuosic backing band lent a metallic edge to cuts like “Backseat Freestyle” and “M.A.A.D City,” while Top Dawg labelmate Schoolboy Q joined him for an electrifying rendition of “That Part.”

This was hardly a by-numbers victory lap, though. Lamar tore through his catalog with the tenacity of an underdog, despite his ascension to the pantheon of rap greats. Saturday’s set spotlighted a reluctant champion, confident enough to work a crowd of 100,000 people, yet conscious enough to remember the first 100 who caught him on the club circuit.

Those die-hards got their moment during his closer, a 10-minute version of “A.D.H.D.” off debut album Section.80. As Lamar made his final exit from the stage, he left the audience with a promise he made three years ago at the same site, and he wasn’t talking about his return to the same stage and time slot next Saturday during the second weekend of the festival:

“I will be back!”

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Kendrick Lamar, ACL Fest 2016, Schoolboy Q, Drake, J. Cole, Kanye West

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