Review: Kendrick Lamar brings performance art to Milwaukee

Kendrick+Lamar+performs+Mirror+on+Aug.+18+at+Fiserv+Forum.

Photo by Sam Baughn

Kendrick Lamar performs “Mirror” on Aug. 18 at Fiserv Forum.

The lights are low. Suit-clad dancers walk onstage, men in black and women in white. Intense piano and string notes fill the stadium. The massive white drape covering the main stage rises, and the dancers separate. The men flee to the back and the women stand firm on the walking path. A man is seated at a piano, holding what appears to be a ventriloquist doll styled after himself. He stands and walks to the center of the stage, his steps reverberating around the stadium. Kendrick Lamar has returned.

After a 5 year hiatus, Kendrick Lamar returned on May 13th with the release of his album Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers. Just weeks later he announced the Big Steppers Tour, and began his first wave of performances in years. Milwaukee’s very own Fiserv Forum hosted the tour on Aug. 18, and the concert began with two quick, yet engaging performances from pgLang affiliates Tanna Leone and Baby Keem (Kendrick Lamar’s cousin and recent frequent collaborator), both of whom are featured on Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers. Set changes following the openers were brief and Kendrick Lamar’s portion of the set began as scheduled, right at 9:00 p.m.

The performance began with “United in Grief,” a fast-paced, yet vulnerable track. Kendrick Lamar stood stoically, the camera steadily focused on the ventriloquist doll he carried, which mouthed the lyrics being performed. The build-up to this opening track highlighted the meticulous set design, which enhanced Lamar’s emotional and raw performance.

The massive white drapes were used in tandem with lights and projectors to create a shadow box effect that compliments the songs being performed. During “Worldwide Steppers,” silhouetted bugs crawled from one side of the drapes to another, and during “Money Trees,” a visual of palm trees swaying in heavy winds played. 

The stage was dynamically lit, with colors, intensity, and effects changing as Kendrick Lamar steps his way through his expansive catalog. Pale white lights illuminated Lamar for the majority of his performance, reflecting a major theme of the album he is touring: Therapy. The themes of therapy, personal growth and relationships are prevalent throughout Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers” and Kendricks’s Lamar’s tour performance highlighted these themes and enhanced them through the set design and selection of songs from his previous albums.

The boastful and careless “Backstreet Freestyle” from album “good kid, m.A.A.d city” is played, and shortly following the track, the voice of Helen Mirran (in the form of a disembodied narrator for the duration of the show) told Kendrick Lamar that “once again, you’ve let your ego get the best of you.”

This led us to one of Kendricks’s most popular hits, “HUMBLE.,” which thematically contrasted the tone of the previous two tracks in the best way possible. 

Helen Mirran’s voice guided the audience through the show several more times, the most impactful of which came roughly halfway through the performance, “you did this to yourself, you forget who you are,” Mirran said, before Lamar’s hard-hitting and aggressive hit “DNA” begins. 

“DNA” highlighted another incredible aspect of the performance: the live band accompanied and intensified the instrumentals of each track. Every drum hit especially hard and in several tracks, additional live instrumentation created a unique instrumental that separated the live version of the song from the studio version. Heavy electric guitar played on top of “DNA,” adding an unforgettable level of energy to an already aggressive track. 

The track “Count Me Out” which played directly after “DNA” in many ways felt like the centerpiece of this performance. Kendrick Lamar performed hunched over, while his shadow was cast upon the massive white drapes to his back. His shadow was pierced by several arrows, a visual representation of the album’s musings on how those around him take turns taking shots at him. The song is a plea for understanding, thus most of the performance was spent hunched over, almost hidden from the crowd. But as the song reached its peak, the drapes rose and Kendrick Lamar stood tall. 

The energy fluctuated dramatically throughout the show. Songs like “B**** Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “LOVE.,” or “Father Time” were emotional and powerful, but Kendrick didn’t hold back from hyping up the crowd, playing a variety of hard-hitting and high-energy hits such as “N95” and “m.A.A.d city.” This contrast of energy was perhaps best represented towards the very end of the show.

“Crown,” the emotionally-charged and stripped-back centerpiece of “Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers,” was performed, and I found myself tearing up. The somber piano and Kendricks Lamar’s emotionally charged voice stated “I can’t please everybody” was deeply impactful, and those emotions lingered as the track ends. 

The lights cut, and what felt like a lifetime of reflective silence filled the room. Yet in a moment it all changed. The lights cut to a piercing red and the dark opening synth notes of Baby Keem’s “Vent” blared as Keem rose from beneath the stage. The moment sent chills down my spine, and in an instant the energy in the room changed to a state of hype and insanity

Keem and Lamar dominated the next eight minutes of the show, which culminated into the triumphant and explosive “Family Ties.” The duo’s stage presence was captivating, with Keem chanting for the crowd to “JUMP.” It felt as if the entire crowd knew every word to the song, and the experience of performing it alongside 16,000 people is one I will never forget.

The concert concluded with the track “Savior,” which played as Lamar descended beneath the stage he first emerged from. The stoicism he performed with broke as the curtain closed, and as he thanked the crowd and promised a return, he flashed a smile and disappeared. 

This story was written by Sam Baughn. He can be reached at sam.baughn@marquette.edu.