“I wish I was somebody / Anybody but myself”. Those two lines from Kendrick Lamar’s “Mother I Sober”, the masterful standout track from his Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers album, aren’t said by Kendrick himself – they are instead sung hauntingly, tauntingly, by Portishead’s Beth Gibbons – but they might as well have been. Heavy is the head that wears the crown – like the thorned one that he notably has worn himself this year – and Kendrick is an artist aware of the blessing and curse of his talent.
At times onstage at Auckland’s Spark Arena on Friday night, he performed like a man hyper aware of this duality: he ran through the motions, seemingly performing on autopilot, sometimes carefully reducing his movements to slow motion, the Big Stepper out of step with the thousands massed in reverence around him.
But this was his final stop of a gruelling world tour, and Kendrick on autopilot is still better than most other performers. For over 100 minutes, an impressive runtime considering his exertions this year, Kendrick put on a show that was sublimely slick, the greatest rapper of his generation able to effortlessly command the Spark Arena runway on his own for much of the set.
During song breaks, the stage would go completely dark, Kendrick offering no crowd chat, instead gathering his emotions for a few moments. This new album, more than any of his previous work, is Music as Therapy, the rapper a more conspicuously conscious lyricist than ever. As someone who’s struggled with his own ability to be confessional in therapy, witnessing Kendrick being so open with his own therapeutic journey on Friday night was thrilling, powerful, and even a little unnerving up this close.
Intergenerational trauma, racial anxieties, unravelling masculinity: Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers is an album abundant in deeply personal subject matters. During the sincerest cuts, particularly songs like “Rich Spirit”, “Father Time” and “Worldwide Steppers”, it was easy to forget that you were at a mainstream hip-hop show; Kendrick, whether standing ponderously but powerfully in the middle of the stage or tinkling on a piano under a spotlight, almost felt like a writer performing his intensely personal one-man play.
And then he would conjure an unstoppable hit like “HUMBLE” or “Money Trees”, and his unbridled confidence and braggadocio lit up the arena. The Auckland crowd responded in kind at these moments, those in the standing area an amorphous mass of outstretched hands, those in the seats feeling the ground trembling below them. In the top left corner, a particularly rowdy group of revellers repeatedly started up the football crowd-esque chant of “Ohhh, Kendrick Lamar,” to the tune of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”.
When plumes of smoke and dazzling flames would occasionally – very occasionally – blow up behind Kendrick, they especially reacted wildly. When you’re dealing with a lyricist as unflinchingly honest as Kendrick, it’s easy to forget that he’s also just as capable of firing up the party as most of his peers (those inside Spark Arena had also earned their enthusiasm: it’s been four years since he performed in Aotearoa, back in 2018 on his DAMN world tour, a terribly lengthy wait to see a rapper on the level of Kendrick).
After over an hour of polished professionalism, the mask slipped, and the stage persona retreated. “You best believe it’s got to be the best show on the motherf*cking tour,” he insisted to the crowd. “It’s been five years since I seen you and it’s an honour to have the most dedicated fans around the motherf*cking world.”
His crew of dancers, as well as his excellent support acts, Tanna Leone and little cousin Baby Keem, were then each given individual shout outs, Kendrick asking the crowd to show them all some well-deserved appreciation. As they all gathered in a loving circle afterwards, before leaving the stage one by one to individual applause, Kendrick’s gratification for his support team was endearing, even humanising.
“Savior” followed, Kendrick informing the crowd that it was the final song he recorded for Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. Fitting really. “From the bottom of our hearts, we love y’all and we will be back,” he added. Leaving the arena, there was one thing that could be thought with conviction: whether it’s two years, three years, or four years again before his return to New Zealand, Kendrick will come back armed with a new set of masterful songs. An artist firmly at the peak of his powers.