Kendrick Lamar’s explosive ACL debut

Last night Austin City Limits showcased the explosive debut of  Kendrick Lamar, the game-changing hip-hop artist, widely-acclaimed as one of the greatest rappers of his generation. The multiple Grammy Award-winning artist delivered an eclectic, electrifying 15-song set that emphasized his massively popular album To Pimp a Butterfly.

Taking the stage to a cover of Earth Wind & Fire’s classic “Can’t Hide Love,” Lamar teased the microphone before easing into the jazzy, speed-rapping “For Free.” He then launched into the bracing “Wesley’s Theory,” also the name of the crack soul band that served as his backup. “Institutionalized” served as an interlude before “Backseat Freestyle,” a trad rap track from his breakthrough good kid m.A.A.d city that garnered a big response from the crowd. Thus primed, the audience was ready for the call-and-response of the intro of “Swimming Pool (Drank),” one of his biggest hits and a clear favorite. Following a brief jam from his band, Lamar then essayed “These Walls,” his current single and a R&B-flavored treatise on denying limitations.

Lamar then borrowed a portion of his song “For Sale?” for “Lucy,” before going into “Hood Politics,” another Butterfly track that involved enthusiastic audience call-and-response. After shining a spotlight on guitarist Rob G, Lamar indulged in some biography on “Complexion.” That was just a set-up, however, for the hit “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” its chorus sung ardently by the enraptured crowd. “Money Trees” kept the vibe going, before the band segued back into “Can’t Hide Love” to give everybody a chance to catch their breaths. That chance lasted a bit longer than anticipated when a technical issue arose, but the crew got it under control and the band went back into “Can’t Find Love.” That was another set-up, however, for the energy-spewing “m.A.A.d city,” another occasion for passionate artist/audience communion.

Lamar and band followed that triumph with the rapid-fire poetics of “U,” a love song of sorts, that ended with a spotlight on the band. The rapper then freestyled about his relationship to his fans, and how that relationship affected the expression of his art on To Pimp a Butterfly. As with the “Can’t Find Love”/”m.A.A.d city” pairing earlier, however, his low-key meditation gave way to the extra-funky high-energy single: “King Kunta,” another clear crowd favorite. Lamar drank in the applause for a minute, before channeling his inner James Brown for some quick beat counts. The slow jam “Momma” came next, followed by the brief rouser “Let’s Talk About Love,” which pumped the audience up more. That was just a warm-up, however, for the Grammy-winning single “i,” a hip-hop tour-de-force built around the riff of the Isley Brothers’ “Who’s That Lady.”

“How Much a Dollar Cost” was more intro than song, but that’s fine, as it primed the pump for “The Blacker the Berry,” another track in Lamar’s personal playlist of protest songs. That performance ended with theatergoers chanting “We gonna be alright” back at the star. That was an unmistakable cue, and Lamar rewarded the chanters with his popular single “Alright.”  With that, crowd and performer were one, taking the chant beyond the song’s length and into ACL history.  It was a hell of a show, and we can’t wait for you to see the broadcast when it airs in January as part of our Season 41 on your local PBS station.