In the decades since hip-hop’s conception, artists have taken transformative steps when it comes to communicating stories. While the genre has invariably been tethered to innovation and multiple mediums, the scale of performance has been slower to evolve. For years, less is more was the formula when it came to the live show: a rapper, DJ and hype-man were the go-to trifecta. Today, Kendrick Lamar demonstrates how far hip-hop has come with his ongoing “The Big Steppers Tour” — performance art at its pinnacle.
Before Kendrick Lamar and pgLang took the stage in Washington D.C. on Thursday night (August 4), Tanna Leone and Baby Keem, both members of the pgLang team, set it using dramatically different visuals. Leone, the newest signee of pgLang’s self-cultivated record label, opened the show with songs from his April 2022 album “Sleepy Soldier,” treating fans to a medley of ambient lighting, alternating monochromatic visual effects, and a refreshing vocal approach.
Baby Keem led his set with “trademark usa,” the intro to 2021’s “The Melodic Blue,” contrasting the visual direction by donning a white dress shirt, long black tie and black slacks. The outfit matched the syncopated white flashing lights set against an often dark stage as Baby Keem rattled off hit after hit, including “range brothers,” “ORANGE SODA,” “hooligan” and “HONEST.”
Kendrick Lamar began his performance with a stage designed to look like a psychotherapist’s office. This setting mirrored the complex emotional themes tackled in his “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” album and he dived headfirst into the narrative — holding a ventriloquist dummy to perform the stellar album opener, “United In Grief” to illustrate the evocative portrait painted by “Mr. Morale.” The therapist can be heard throughout the entirety of the set.
Light and shadow took center stage for Mr. Morale’s story as images portrayed ranged from the arguing couple present in the intensely heated track “We Cry Together” resolving their issues through “Purple Hearts” and lamenting over losses yet never accepting defeat in “Count Me Out.” The overall concept meshed perfectly — “Shadow work,” or internal work and change, is a common practice in various therapeutic spaces, demonstrating the depths to which Kendrick uses art to create a new level of connectivity.
Adding another element to the performance’s palette of styles, dancers led the audience through the music with motion and movement. One word was strikingly prevalent with every step, stride, and slide performed by these leaders of form: intention. The dancers flowed through songs such as “N95” and “Silent Hill,” melding together as one in a mind-blowing audio/visual moment of shadow and sound for the song “LUST.” from Kendrick’s 2017 album, “DAMN.” Lamar’s performance of “Crown,” the piano heavy centerpiece to “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers,” featured the rapper himself at the keys.
In the territory of being a megastar, it’s essential to perform the room-shakers, of which Kendrick Lamar has an abundance. But, as noted, the unexpected nature of this set always allows for a twist. Performing from a levitating quarantine room, longtime fans were elated to hear some of their favorites such as “DNA.,” “Money Trees,” “LOYALTY.,” “Backseat Freestyle” and “family ties” with cousin Baby Keem.
To round out this incredible display of sights and sounds, Lamar performed the standout track from “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers,” “Savior,” proving yet again that his elevated artistry carves an unobstructed path to hip-hop’s Mt. Rushmore. His “Big Steppers Tour” is yet another statement of intent, taking performance art in the genre, and music as a whole, to new heights.