In front of it: a zebra skin rug. Surrounding it: drums, keyboards, bass, guitar. On stage right flickered a blue-and-red neon "Pimp's Only" sign — in the shape of an arrow pointed at Kendrick Lamar's point of entry between silvery streamers seemingly leftover from a reunion at some hideaway bar or a welcome home house party. When Lamar — in a tilted black beanie, black shirt and torn black pants — approached the microphone at center stage, it wasn't clear whether he was going to box it, kiss it or touch it only to fly back 100 feet from the shock. The packed house at the Civic Theatre on Oct. 28 roared loud enough and long enough to delay Lamar's anticipated explosive introduction. Then he sat on the couch.
The crowd didn't let up. He looked around the room and up at the balcony, humbled by the waves of praise crashing the stage.
In the middle of his set, Lamar said he will never be used to that kind of praise. Despite the accolades he receives from his fans or NPR or The New York Times, he carries with him the institutionalization of growing up surrounded by crime and poverty — Lamar is a black man from Compton who has been told his life doesn't matter. And that — whether you "come from a small block in Compton" or "a small block in New Orleans," Lamar told the crowd — will leave you stuck.
His 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly ends with an imagined conversation between Lamar and the late Tupac Shakur, Lamar's idol, as Lamar asks his thoughts on the metaphor in the album's title. Pac doesn't answer. The rappers bond over their attempt to outlive their expiration date — but what of the caterpillar, who struggles to survive, incubates itself to become a butterfly, only to be "pimped" and packaged and stripped of its identity. It's a complex, dense novel of a rap album weaving free-form jazz, spoken word, West Coast G-funk and Lamar's affecting, mercurial raps addressing his double life — he's a "hypocrite" for celebrating black life while letting jealousy and fear overwhelm his love, he's "King Kunta," oppressed but celebrated, hated but wearing the crown, carrying the "yams" of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, and he loves himself on "i" but admits that his love is complicated on "u."
"When I was done making this album, I felt like this whole weight lifted off my chest on a personal level," he said.
The album's live feel begs for a live rendering — Lamar delivered with his eight-city Kunta's Groove Sessions tour, announced almost as a surprise and filling a handful of small-sized concert halls with his full-band (dubbed The Wesley Theory) presenting Butterfly in full. The Civic Theatre show — announced just a week ago — sold out in minutes. Lamar said the tour is likely the only time he'll ever perform Butterfly.
"This might be my first and last time performing this album only," he said. "I want y'all to remember this moment ... because this album is not only good music: real shit is in there."
The hectic jazz of "For Free?" and the eerie funk on "Wesley's Theory" introduced Lamar's "pimping" dilemma, as he danced, contorted and gestured his raps, often leaning into the audience from the stage monitors. The room pulsed, bowed and moved with his directions. He commanded his band like a James Brown maestro and spoke frequently to his audience without condescension, articulating his music's message with simple conversation and powerful performance.
Several songs from his acclaimed 2012 album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, morphed into loud monsters and adapted to the electric live band, amplifying the chugging horror story on "m.A.A.d. city" and fleshing out the industry peer pressure on "Swimming Pools" and his "Backseat Freestyle."
He finished his set with a powerful block of songs from Butterfly, beginning with the funk-backed "King Kunta" in which he climbed from Compton and claimed its throne, then admited on "Momma," after all, after the fame, faced with his younger self, he doesn't know anything and doesn't know where the answers are: "I know how people work / I know the price of life, I'm knowin' how much it’s worth. / I know what I know and I know it well not to ever forget / until I realized I didn’t know shit the day I came home."
But the conflict at home is the source of pride and empowerment on the soulful, joyous and uptempo "i" — the album's first single but on the tail end of the track list. He followed with "The Blacker the Berry," a moving contemplation and condemnation of black self-hatred, for which he reveals he is responsible.
Lamar returned praise to New Orleans several times — it's his fourth visit to the city since the release of m.A.A.d city, and he just performed at the 2015 Essence Festival in July. "I feel like I can relate to y'all with the shit you've been through," he said.
He collected his breath — before he could finish, the audience chanted the chorus to "Alright," which has emerged as an anthem and a rallying cry for civil rights and Black Lives Matter: "We gon' be all right."
Lamar let the chants ring out, then die down, and he looked out at his crowd one last time.