The Parisian crowd is chanting but it’s not immediately clear to American ears what they’re saying. It gets louder as the object of their adulation stands on the stage and calmly soaks it in. Then it snaps into focus: “Khendreek! Khendreek! Khendreek!”
People had been saying all day before Kendrick Lamar’s second sold-out show at Paris’ Accor Arena on Saturday that the crowd’s reaction on the previous night made his summer concerts in Brooklyn, Las Vegas and even the four-night, North American tour-closing stand in his hometown of Los Angeles seem tame. We’ll see, we thought — but damned if they weren’t right.
The crowd went absolutely batshit — they reacted to opener Tanna Leone like he was Baby Keem and reacted to higher-billed opener Baby Keem like he was Kendrick and reacted to Kendrick like they’d just won $1,000 (or €1,000, which is the same thing thanks to a historically low exchange rate, as evidenced by the huge number of Americans currently in the city). And they responded much more powerfully to the songs from Lamar’s challenging latest album, “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers,” than American audiences seemed to.
In his low-key way, Lamar played into it: He let the crowd take verses and choruses more often than he did at those U.S. shows, and led them as if he were driving a precision sports car. All it took was one “Let’s go” and the floor was in a controlled frenzy; he said “Let me see both of your hands” and thousands went up. He even name-checked Amazon Music — which livestreamed the show over Prime Video and Twitch in an elaborate 19-camera shoot that involved months of coordination with Lamar’s team — and gave the company’s hip-hop/R&B chief Tim Hinshaw (who he’s known for many years) a “shout out to my brother Tim,” which is the equivalent of a champagne shower in Kendrick terms.
And although this night marked the 10th anniversary of the release of his generation-defining breakthrough album, “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City,” he didn’t make a big deal out of it — just a quick “Don’t think we forgot… Paris, can we take it back to day one?” marking the occasion before he launched into “Money Trees.”
Witnessing the “The Big Steppers” tour more than once or up close reveals just how intricately planned and subtle a performance it is. Unlike virtually every other rapper (with some top-shelf exceptions like Drake, Jay and Em), Lamar is a master of low-key intensity. He doesn’t jump, he rarely raises his voice, and he doesn’t dance conventionally. But a closer look reveals that the deeply disciplined control and complexity of his lyrics is fully equaled in his performance, from his moves to the lighting and effects. Even the merch is subtle: The fastest-selling items at the table in our section were the monogrammed “Big Stepper” socks (get it?).
Anyone who’s tried to rap along with Lamar knows that his songs are masterpieces of physical as well as verbal endurance: breath control, tongue-twisting, sudden changes of rhythm, syncopation and tone. And what is even more remarkable on the “Big Steppers” tour — which is a far more elaborate performance than his previous ones — is that now he’s leading and interacting with a troupe of dancers as well. He doesn’t engage in fancy footwork; instead, he steps, and his intensity and intricacy is nearly all from the waist up: subtle hand motions, quickly turning his head, bobbing rhythmically, those trademark windmilling arm movements and rolls. And when his silhouette is projected on the screens at the back of the stage, it’s not live: He’s moving along, nearly flawlessly, with a previously filmed silhouette of himself with images of arrows in his back or flocks of birds around him.
There’s also an inescapable sense of claustrophobia about the show: The dancers’ moves are often violent or threatening, they circle him menacingly even as he’s moving with them. He performs “Alright” inside a clear plastic tent surrounded by guards swathed in PPE suits (the song concludes with a voiceover saying, “Mr. Morale, you have been contaminated”). During “Crown,” six big, square lights lower from the ceiling and loom over him while he sings “You can’t please everybody,” as if he’s being hounded by people’s expectations to make big statements or write more bangers. Like the album, it’s a haunting commentary on the oppressiveness of stardom.
All of which isn’t to say he’s just standing there: Every intricate step is carefully planned and he nails his marks, at times leading the dancers in perfect step while delivering those feats of verbal endurance; during one song he’s moving and rapping as a female dancer holds and follows him, gently pressed against his back. It’s like watching the engine of a fine-tuned Mercedes — and he does it for two solid hours, tearing through nearly 30 songs with no breaks except for the occasional dramatic pause or brief video interlude.
This date included a handful of relatively minor changes from the North American tour: There were a couple of additional verses here and there; and some new video elements, mostly notably some of the deepfakes from “The Heart Pt. 5″ video and a silhouetted interpretation of “We Cry Together,” which was one of the evening’s stranger moments: Only the harrowing song’s “Fuck you b—h / Fuck you n—a” was performed, and then he went straight into “Purple Hearts,” asking the crowd cheerfully “How y’all feeling?” and saying how great it was to be back after five years. He then led them into a singalong on the “Yeah, baby” lyric while the silhouettes continued arguing silently behind him, before finally embracing at the end of the song. (To be fair, the show is so tightly organized that there isn’t much room for spontaneity or major setlist changes.)
The pacing felt slightly different as well. Unlike the deeply challenging “Mr. Morale” album, which basically makes the listener put in the work whether they want to or not, he intersperses the new songs with bangers for the first two-thirds of the show. But the final eight or nine songs are uphill — even an energetic, pyro-filled tag team with Baby Keem on “Range Brothers” and “Family Ties” and Tanna Leone on “Mr. Morale” lacked the infectious vibes of classics like “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Humble.,” “Swimming Pools (Drank),” “Alright” and even the new “N95” that were aired earlier in the set.
The show ends abruptly after Lamar finishes “Savior”: The dancers bolt offstage and he quickly thanks the audience as the platform on which he’s standing sinks beneath the stage, and boom — the house lights come up and it’s over.
“The Big Steppers Tour” is almost the obverse of the ordinary, tried-and-true concert tradition, where the hits are saved for encores or at least the end of the set. But Kendrick Lamar is far from ordinary, and it seems the show is designed to acknowledge his past and please the crowd early — but concludes by signaling that this is where he is now, he knows exactly what wants, and if certain aspects don’t meet the expectations that some fans brought with them, well, you can’t please everybody.