Kendrick Lamar Brings His Self-Contained Universe to Tempe, Doesn't Play Anything New

Remember that one line in "Still Dre" where Dr. Dre tries to establish his credibility and continued relevance after a few years out of the spotlight by stating that his last album was The Chronic? Or that part in "The Takeover" where Jay-Z is ripping apart Nas's somewhat mediocre output but at least acknowledges that the dude wrote Illmatic? Both these lines deal with a major past achievement being like a talisman that wards off the most severe pronouncements of wackness. Jay-Z won't completely destroy Nas because at least he made one of the most influential albums of the '90s. Dre basically gave the world Snoop Dogg, so everyone needs to step back a bit.

I thought about these lines a lot as I watched Kendrick Lamar headline the second night of the Pot of Gold Music Festival at Tempe Beach Park.

His set was predominantly composed of material from 2012's Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, an album that meant a lot to people in 2012 and still means a lot apparently, judging by the seemingly thousands of people singing along to every word. It was and still is a great album. He plays those songs great live, especially with a backing band. Like, I'm not going to not be into it when he opens with "Money Trees." But I can't seem to get down with the way Kendrick seems to be elevating the status of that album. It's not an epoch-defining record that compels people not to call you out all the way. It's not The Chronic or Illmatic. It's a really strong major label debut from an artist with a lot of promise. And Kendrick has promised some things.

This is a person who claimed that he was trying to murder his competition and declared himself to be on the level of Jay-Z and Nas on a now infamous feature on Big Sean's 2013 track "Control." Yet here he is, two years later, telling a crowd how excited he is that they are still getting into songs from a record released three years ago as if it was released yesterday. A person behind me even noted that it seemed like the same set he did opening for Kanye West on the Yeezus tour.

The thing is that Kendrick does actually have some things in the pipe. During his performance he alluded to his upcoming album To Pimp a Butterfly at least twice. He has two singles from this album, "i" and "The Blacker the Berry" that have been released so far, the former being a more poppy take on his almost trademark style of artistic solipsism, the latter being commentary on race relations and blackness filtered through that same solipsistic lens, resulting in a blunt and oblique track many have found questionable if not outright problematic in the scheme of larger discourse on the subject (e.g. the #blacklivesmatter movement). He didn't perform either of these songs, but the mentality behind both of them, the construction of reality according to Kendrick's standards and perspective with a willful disregard of its context in the greater world, was evident in how Kendrick curated his set.

People were willing to enter Kendrick's reality for the night, a reality where Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City is simultaneously fresh and a cornerstone of the foundation of modern hip-hop. People seemed down with that. However, it's a shame this show happened on the cusp of the release of new material, material Kendrick seems to be holding on to very tightly, because a lot of these people have already been to Kendrick's reality in 2012 while only having a glimpse of what it's like in 2015.

Critic's Notebook

What is Competition?: Kendrick Lamar's megalomaniacal charm really won me over in some ways because I basically wrote this entire piece about him. However I enjoyed Schoolboy Q's set because he played "Studio" and that reminded me of a Genius annotation I put up for that song suggesting that the part where he's just saying "cus you girl, girl" over and over is indicative of the narrator of the song actually being a sexy robot that has glitched out into some kind of infinite seduction loop. Slightly Stoopid was too chill and made me want to go home and listen to Desmond Dekker or Junior Murvin or any kind of reggae with a sense of urgency and righteousness.

Not your word: White people were saying the n-word a lot and it was tasteless.

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