Promptly at 9 pm, Kendrick Lamar took the stage at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto and began his show for The Big Steppers tour. As the intro for “United in Grief” began, I was shocked at his punctuality and that the show seemed to go off without a hitch. Considering Toronto’s recent string of bad luck with concerts—The Weeknd and Justin Bieber both canceled last minute and the rescheduled OVO fest started hours late. But I should have known, this isn’t just any artist, it’s Kendrick fucking Lamar. Remembering his DAMN. tour from 2017, I had a pre-existing notion of what a Kendrick concert was like but I was not prepared for the innovative conceptual and visual artistry put into this tour. By the time I left the stadium, I sounded like one of those die-hard Kendrick fans that gives philosophical explanations, no one asked for, about why he stepped left and not right.
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Standing on the stage alone, in an immaculately tailored black suit with a knotted scarf around his neck, black oval sunglasses, and a glittery silver glove on his left hand, he transitioned into “N95”. As soon as I heard, “hello new world, all the boys and girls, I got some true stories to tell,” I felt a palpable shift in energy. The tsk tsk tsk of the beat’s hi-hats came in, Kendrick started rapping “take off the foo-foo, take off the clout chase, take off the Wi-Fi”, and the stadium went nuts to one of the fan favorites from Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers. The song’s title “N95”, references the N95 masks recommended by the CDC to prevent Covid, and acts as a metaphor for the lyrical commentary on the facades people put up to conceal their true (and ugly) selves. From there, he went straight into “ELEMENT.” also sending the crowd into a frenzy with a hit from his DAMN. era. The juxtaposition of “N95” and “ELEMENT.” is notable because both songs have that classic Kendrick social analysis but “N95” is a macro commentary on the bullshit in the world, and “ELEMENT.” is a micro commentary on the bullshit and sacrifice Kendrick has personally endured.
It was back to his new album, as “Worldwide Steppers” came on and the drape covering the main stage lit up with a shadow visual of bugs crawling from one side to the other. Brightly lit cell phone screens remained proudly held up, recording Kendrick’s every move, as he rapped about the perils of cancel culture and the realizations he’s had about his past from unpacking childhood trauma. The instantly recognizable intro for “Backseat Freestyle” began and I was transported to a decade earlier when the song first came out. “All my life I want money and power / Respect my mind or die from lead shower”, the crowd screamed as Kendrick two-stepped all over the center walkway. The sequence of songs further builds on my theory that the setlist has intention behind it. “Worldwide Steppers” reflects on some of his previous sexual encounters with newfound self-awareness and “Backseat Freestyle” contrasts that with boastful lyrics about bitches and ignorant one-liners from the perspective of a 16-year-old Kendrick freestyling.
Psychoanalysis aside, the interlayered setlist of old and new Kendrick songs is an opportunity for a deeply personal concert experience allowing myself, and many others, to transcend the present moment and remember memories tethered to the time in which each of these noteworthy songs came out. That’s exactly what evoked emotion for Devyn Sanford, who went viral when a video of him wiping away tears during Kendrick’s performance of “LOVE.”, while working security at the Houston, Texas show, was posted by u/dejaihvu on TikTok. Speaking to KPRC-TV, he shared that Kendrick’s performance brought him back to 2017, when the song first came out. The lyrics, illustrating unconditional love, originally connected with Stanford during a period of relationship turmoil, and hearing it live, coupled with seeing the audience’s reaction brought back all the feels. The reflection on where you were vs where you are now, triggered by the music, and visibly displayed for others to see is one of the purest manifestations of emotion.
While no tears were shed from the concertgoers around me, the next-level production began when the stage beneath Kendrick lit up one rectangle at a time mimicking the piano keys being played through the speakers. Kendrick jumped from key to key to the main stage, which was now uncovered, revealing a piano. The lights cut out and a chilling voiceover said, “Mr. Morale, you’ve once again let your ego get the best of you. Must I remind you of how this went before?” A solo spotlight shined on Kendrick as he played a transposed version of the melody for the song ahead on the piano. Pause…the instrumental for “HUMBLE.” cuts in and the lights start flashing to the beat of the drums. Right on cue, he looks at the audience to rap “I remember syrup sandwiches and crime allowances” and starts moving again. The timing was immaculate, as he turned around the two side screens lit up with a single message, “Frontin’ on Man Man” and the main screen cut to a close-up view of center stage shot by a cameraman standing underneath it, facing the crowd. Suit-clad dancers, men in black and women in white, entered the stage and surrounded Kendrick making it clear this was not going to be a one-man show. Then came my favorite moment of the song, when the dancers’ arms dramatically air played the piano keys in the production, from side to side, right after Kendrick started rapping “AM to the PM, PM to the AM, funk”. I can’t emphasize enough how meticulously detailed the planning of this performance was. Utilizing the beat pause in “HUMBLE.”, the dancers and Kendrick froze to let the crowd scream “My left stroke just went viral” and then everything on stage came back to life.
The choreography (done by Charm La’Donna), momentary pauses, on-screen visuals, lights, and pyrotechnics were carefully used during Kendrick’s 1.5-hour-long set to create a live performance that was more akin to theatrical storytelling than a hip-hop concert. Oftentimes, hip-hop shows fall flat with mediocre vocals, too-loud background lyrics, and a lack of intention in the design of the overall performance. None of that can be said about this show. When I say this man does everything with intention, leaving nothing for random, I mean it, and no it’s not always as deep as Kendrick fans make it out to be but thematic elements, without a doubt, informed the set design. The voiceover, acting as therapist interjections, coupled with the heavy use of white light, representing purification and healing in color therapy, alludes to the therapeutic process Kendrick underwent to inform his last album. The concept of therapy, which involves introspection, expurgation, and healing, is omnipresent in Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers but seeing these elements communicated visually breathed new life into the album. I can even take it a step further and point out that the inclusion of so many old songs is consistent with the process of revisiting the past in therapy to draw conclusions about the present.
The drape covering the main stage not only helped with set changes but was used for shadow play. During “We Cry Together”, the shadow of a couple arguing illustrated the heated dialogue before transitioning into “Purple Hearts”, and for “Count Me Out”, Kendrick hunched over and steadily bounced while his shadow figure did the same but with arrows sticking out of his back. In therapy, shadow work is the process of working with your unconscious mind to find the parts of yourself you’ve repressed due to past trauma, social conditioning, and other reasons. So, to recap, Kendrick used shadow play, which is tied to the larger thematic concept of therapy informing the set design, to illustrate the meanings of specific songs throughout the show—creating visuals that have meaning within a meaning. Yes, I just made it deep. No, I will not fight with Kendrick haters on Twitter about this.
On a less therapeutic note, I noticed how the meticulousness of the choreography was tied to Kendrick’s constant movement. Where other hip-hop artists improvise their hand motions and steps, constantly jumping from one side of the stage to the other without purpose, Kendrick moves methodically. During “m.A.A.d city”, he had the kind of spatial awareness, while eight dancers swiveled around him, that only comes with hours of rehearsal. At one point in the song, he was center stage with four dancers on each side. Everything paused for a second, then he started slowly stepping forward, perfectly synchronized with the dancers’ movements which were a dramatized version of his own—playing into the “Big Steppers” theme. His presence, voice, and performance had a subconscious level of dominance to it that commanded the attention of the room while doing a lot less than the other ornate elements of the show.
There were few and far between moments that allowed for improvisation, mostly the songs when he was performing alone utilizing the walkway and front stage but that was enough for a young fan named Kendrick to grab his attention at the tour’s recent stop in Detroit. In content that’s now gone viral, the nine-year-old boy can be seen all smiles holding up a handwritten sign that reads “My name is Kendrick. This is my first concert. Can we take a pic.” It’s what prompted the rapper to crouch down and give a special shout-out to the boy during his set, first encouraging him to honor his parents for the gift of his inaugural concert experience. Then urging him to chase his dreams by saying, “You will forever be great. You’re great right now. You can do whatever you want to put your mind to, you know it? You understand that?…Little Kendrick, do what you want to do in life.” Witnessing that genuine and pure interaction live would probably bring me to tears. When I first saw the photos and videos of this moment online, I thought of how Kendrick speaking to little Kendrick mirrors the idea of speaking to your inner child, which is a common practice for healing in therapy. But it doesn’t stop there, little Kendrick also got a handwritten note as a sentimental keepsake to remember the night forever. “Young Kendrick, thank you for coming. I’m glad we got to exchange energy. You are special. Continue to manifest the great energy you posses!!! See you next time!!! Luv!!!”
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If you’re not already tearing up or full of love, just wait because the plot thickens. I reached out to young Kendrick’s father, Dave Stewart, and learned the profound origin story of his son’s name. “Music is very powerful to me. I decided to name my son Kendrick right after listening to Overly Dedicated and Section.80. My wife bought me tickets to see Kendrick in Detroit [for the good kid, m.A.A.d city Tour date on June 5th, 2013] while we lived in Kentucky. As soon as it was time for Kendrick to come on stage my phone rang,” Stewart recounts. It was a nurse telling him Kendrick was about to come out, as in his son, was about to be born while simultaneously the artist he named him after was about to perform. “My wife had preeclampsia and had to have an emergency C section. I didn’t get to see Kendrick perform because I dashed out and left my best friend by himself. Nine years later, I take my son to his first concert and this happens!!! It’s interesting because me and my son are fans for separate reasons. My son loves Kendrick Lamar because of Black Panther, from the bed sets and comforters to T-shirts and watching the movie over and over [again]. I’ve been a day one fan from jump, I’ve grown as a man with Kendrick and his musical evolution,” Stewart concludes. What was unclear from the videos or photos posted online is how the handwritten note got back to young Kendrick. Turns out, Stewart and his son were walking past the tour bus after the show and Kendrick’s bass player, Tony Russell, recognized him. He made a call, got the poster signed, took the viral photo of Kendrick signing it, and brought it back out. Stewart enthusiastically shared his gratitude for the moment and words of encouragement with hopes that one day, he and his son would get to meet Kendrick.
Stewart and his son’s full-circle moment is the perfect example of how your personal experiences will inform the meaning you get from The Big Steppers tour. For myself, Kendrick has always been an artist that I greatly respect. From the way he constructs themes and thought-provoking lyrics to the beats he chooses, his versatility in flows, and the meticulous creativity in his art direction, he exhibits a high level of artistry at every touchpoint possible. The influence of therapy on the set design and his last album is also personal to me. As someone who’s spent years in therapy, I can relate my own experience to the process and results that Kendrick has vulnerably weaved into his music evoking a deep sense of emotion coupled with an appreciation for the performance art that was this concert. At the end of the day, music is really about how it makes you feel and there’s a multitude of reasons as to why any member of the audience would walk away with a feeling they’ll never forget. I’ve never said I would see the same concert twice but in the case of Kendrick and The Big Steppers tour—run that shit back.
Like what you saw? Here’s more:
Not Just a Gemini: The Exploration of Kendrick Lamar’s Natal Chart
I Can’t Stop Talking About Brent Faiyaz’s Album ‘Wasteland’
TWIM: Kendrick Lamar Finally Releases ‘Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers’ Album