Billie Eilish had a wild light show. Paul McCartney had Bruce Springsteen and Dave Grohl. So how does Kendrick Lamar take to the stage? An understated setup, zero guest appearances, wearing a white shirt, black suit trousers and a crown of thorns. He’s half-dressed to his own wedding.
But what a set. This is so heavy with bangers, it breathes life back into a crowd that’s straining to stay conscious.
Lamar opens with “United In Grief”, the gentle first track from his latest album, Mr Morale and the Big Steppers. Before anyone’s lulled into a state of false security, though, the opening bars of “m.A.A.d city” ring through the night. Fireworks blow across the site as the “Yawk! Yawk! Yawk! Yawk!” lands. Anyone thinking this is going to be a set of reflective, conscious hip hop – like the bulk of the work on Mr Morale – is in for a shock.
Lamar rolls straight into “Money Trees”. The hypnotic sample – a reversed riff from the Beach House track “Silver Soul” – coils hauntingly through the warm bodies as a cool night closes in. “It goes Halle berry… or hallelujah,” screams the crowd. Before anybody has time to think we’re into “Backstreet Freestyle”, followed by the opening bars of “The Art of Peer Pressure”. Lamar is going hard; he doesn’t miss a beat; his flow is on point.
“Swimming Pools”, his 2012 single, is an early crowd-pleaser, as drinks are held aloft. Then “Poetic Justice” flows seamlessly into “B*** Don’t Kill My Vibe”. Lamar doesn’t let up for the whole of his first album, moving seamlessly from track to track. His recent single “N95” marks the transition into Mr Morale and the Big Steppers.
As the gig unfolds, Lamar’s unusual staging choices start to make sense. His graceful main feature is a coterie of dancers that increases in size as the concert goes on. During “N95” they surround Lamar, flashing torches disorientingly. It’s a mesmerising spectacle. At the show’s midpoint, he swaps the male dancers for female, who frame him in a nurturing embrace. “I love when you call me out,” sings Kendrick on one of his album’s poignant slow jams. But there’s no time to get sentimental… we’re straight into “King Kunta”. The P-funk influenced classic lifts the lid off the worn Sunday night contingent.
“I like where your energy is at tonight, Glastonbury. We’re going to have a good time tonight,” an approving Lamar tells the audience. “DNA” from his Pulitzer Prize-winning album DAMN drops, and Lamar’s energy and flow is so good that it feels like he’s overtaking everyone. Suddenly the lights come up and the crowd roars for him, as he stands nodding, and perhaps even welling up a little. Everyone is chanting his name.
The final song is “Saviour”, and without warning the thorns framing the top of his head appear to start bleeding, dropping down his face and white shirt. “Godspeed for women’s rights. They judge you, they judge Christ,” raps Lamar, to huge cheers. He’s altered the lyrics in apparent reference to the Supreme Court’s decision to repeal Roe v Wade.
It is in some ways a relief, if not a surprise, that he’s so good. Because Glastonbury has a chequered history with hip-hop. Jay Z was the first hip-hop artist to headline the festival in 2008, an announcement which prompted Noel Gallagher of Oasis to claim: “I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong.” Jay’s performance went down well, but it didn’t seem to settle the doubters. What it did was pave the way for another of hip-hop’s greats, Kanye West, whose standoffish 2015 performance – big on spectacle, but lacking warmth – was widely seen to fail to connect with the crowd.
Stormzy turned the tables again in 2019, making up for a relatively new career with a widely celebrated performance that exploded into life, thanks to a set that went heavy on pyrotechnics – along with his celebration of Glastonbury and the UK grime scene.
And Lamar? Well tonight he has it all: the hits, the heritage, and the humility. “I don’t do it for the gram,” he says on “ELEMENT”. “I do it for Compton”