On August 31st, Kendrick Lamar kicked off his sold-out two-night run show for his Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers album at the Oakland Arena. After a five-year hiatus and break from social media, Lamar returned right as fans began suspecting his retirement. Almost a year ago, he dropped a cryptic link to oklama.com on his Instagram and Twitter. This website announced the upcoming release of his fifth studio album Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, and was followed by his resignation from his record label of 17 years, Top Dawg Entertainment. Lamar’s resignation was partly due to the recent creation of his own record label, pgLang.
The Big Steppers album peaked on the Billboard Top 200 for 17 weeks, and surpassed a billion streams on Spotify. After months of his international tour, the Compton native returned to the Bay to multitudes of devoted fans lining up hours before the show. Both his opening acts, Baby Keem and rising LA rapper Tanna Leone, were artists under the pgLang label. Although the crowd wasn’t familiar with Tanna Leone’s songs, his admirable stage presence had at least two people jumping in the pit. Baby Keem’s set list hyped up the crowd with hits like “trademark usa” and “Praise God.” The very first song started with dancers in full suits marching down the catwalk as the curtain rose to reveal Kendrick Lamar and his mini ventriloquist dummy rapping the lyrically heavy lead track “United in Grief.” The disembodied voice of English actress Helen Mirren announced that this is actually Kendrick Lamar’s therapy session.
This therapeutic theme was embodied as he played more songs off of his most recent album like “N95,” a commentary on the artificiality and materialism of social media, and “Rich Spirit,” which is about him unlearning his old ego and habits in order to embrace new spiritual teachings. The crowd was noticeably less active than when he played his older hits, which could be partially due to the subject matter, or simply unfamiliarity with the album. Although there was less interaction, the crowd stood in reverence at Lamar’s more serious songs, still awed by his ability to play a 90-minute set without a break or water.
The blending of songs from different eras and albums seemed strategic, but also random. The audience passionately rapped along to 2012 throwbacks “Backstreet Freestyle” and “B****, Don’t Kill My Vibe.” Off the 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning album DAMN, “Loyalty” and “DNA” had the entire crowd energized and singing along. During “Humble” and several other songs, choreographed dancers almost challenged Kendrick’s rapping skills. This combination made the show feel much more artistic. “King Kunta” was one of the most memorable songs of the night with astronomical noise levels and the mosh pit.
Nearing the end of the concert, Lamar entered a box with four men in hazmat suits while the cooling voice of Helen Mirren instructed him to take a Covid test. He then started playing the social justice anthem “Alright,” but the majority anti-mask crowd kinda missed the message of the song framed in the context of the pandemic. Soon after, opening act Baby Keem returned to perform the 2021 hit “Family Ties” with Lamar, which was one of the only times fireworks and pyrotechnics were used in the show. Lamar raps about how isolating the music industry can feel and the pressure it brings during “Crown.” Following a similar theme with “Mirror,” Lamar’s low-tempo end to the concert proves he doesn’t feel the need to cater to mainstream audiences in order to be successful. Throughout the show, Lamar confronts all his inner conflicts of ego, spirituality, past traumas, and expectations, somehow captivating the audience with only a microphone and a spotlight. His attention to artistry and detail made the entire show feel like an experience, rather than a concert, and he continues to be one of the most innovative rappers in the game.