- Live Review
- 16 Nov 22
Over four years since his last 3Arena headliner, the Compton rapper made his triumphant return to Dublin, with the world’s most captivating hip-hop tour – featuring pyrotechnics, hazmat suits, a puppet, deepfakes, and the voice of Helen Mirren.
How do you take one of the year’s most devastatingly introspective and personal albums, and bring it to arena stages and high-energy crowds around the world?
That’s the question that lingered long after the final refrain on closing track ‘Mirror’, when Kendrick Lamar released his rabidly awaited album, Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers, back in May. Arriving over five years after its predecessor, DAMN., the LP offered an unprecedented, revealing look at the man behind the music – not defined by neighbourhood, or friends, or proximity to violence, as in 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, but by his own flaws and ultimate growth, as he faces up to, and works through, decades of generational and personal trauma.
Dublin fans finally got to bear witness to the Pulitizer-winning rapper’s answer to that initial question this week, as The Big Steppers Tour made its way – in a cloud of colossal expectations and intrigue, largely fuelled by social media snippets – to the 3Arena for two dramatic nights.
For an artist whose name dominates every discussion about modern hip-hop, Kendrick wasn't afraid to share the spotlight – using the show as an opportunity to showcase the talents of pgLang, the creative collective and label he and Dave Free founded in 2020. With the label’s name emblazoned over the stage as the crowd filled the room, one of pgLang’s lesser known artists, Tanna Leone, took on the task of kicking off proceedings. Armed with a genre-blending fearlessness, he instantly won over the lively crowd, as he swung expertly between high energy and high emotion, with a charisma that filled every inch of the minimalist white stage. His emo-rap-influenced debut album, Sleepy Soldier, marked him as a serious one-to-watch following its release earlier this year, and highlights like ‘Death n’ Taxes’ proved even more convincing in a live setting.
Baby Keem – Kendrick’s 22-year-old cousin, who has rapidly climbed to the upper echelons of the rap world in his own right – was up next, with a headliner-worthy set that served as further proof of his status as a unique creative force who’s going to be shaping the path of hip-hop for decades. Drawing heavily from his outstanding debut album, The Melodic Blue, released last year, Keem’s performance was particularly powerful at its rawest, most vulnerable moments, as he addressed demons and family on the stand-out ‘issues’. It was a set that showcased an artist who, despite being a relative newcomer, can command an arena crowd by barely moving a muscle – though, as he exited the stage without a hint of ‘family ties’, it was obvious that it wouldn’t be the last we’d see of him that night.
Both artists, though individual in their styles, bear the influence of Kendrick as a forward-thinking and entirely unpredictable creative. Clearly, pgLang has established itself as a home for unrepentant outsiders, who just so happen to have mass appeal – and that non-conformist nature guided every moment of the night, particularly from the moment that the cast of dancers took to the stage for the headline set, setting in motion one of the most theatrical and ambitious hip-hop shows that’s ever been pulled off.
From the get-go, we were plunged into the world of Mr Morale & The Big Steppers – and unique is far too small a word for it. Kendrick, in typically unexpected form, announced his presence on stage with his back to the audience, sitting at an upright piano, before enlisting the help of a slightly unnerving puppet of himself for ‘United in Grief’.
With Helen Mirren, no less, taking on the role of the narrator, the crowd and Kendrick were guided through a journey largely based around the central themes of the latest album, charting his personal growth as he embraces the benefits of therapy. Of course, the fan favourites from his previous discography weren't forgotten, but in the case of tracks like ‘m.A.A.d city’ and ‘HUMBLE.’, they were introduced within the context of the show, forming part of the overarching narrative.
The spectacle of the set didn't stop there, with bold choreography, a shape-shifting stage, manipulated shadow play, and pyrotechnics all introduced at various moments of the show. But all eyes in the venue were fixed firmly on Kendrick throughout – as a swelling sea of arms and bodies moved in time with his flow, matching the rapper’s pace as they shouted back his musings on life, love and mental health.
— Ian Power (@powerian) November 13, 2022
And, remarkably, none of the theatrics felt forced – not even bed-ridden Kendrick, puppet Kendrick, shadow Kendrick, or Kendrick in a box. Not even when Kendrick entered a make-shift Covid-19 lab with four hazmat suited figures, performing ‘Alright’ before he was declared “contaminated”.
The production value was astonishing throughout – at one point during ‘Savior’, in a nod to his groundbreaking ‘The Heart Part 5’ video, deepfake technology was used to morph him onscreen into J. Cole, Future and LeBron James – but there was more than money thrown at this show. The creative vision and attention to detail was unmatched, with the rapper and his team offering an immersive experience that could barely be described as a gig.
While it was a phenomenally polished, well-oiled production, there was plenty of heart in the show too. Cousins Kendrick and Baby Keem’s onstage reunion felt like a genuine celebration of family, and the reappearance of a fired-up Tanna Leone for 'Mr. Morale' was another clear effort to platform the next generation of emerging talent.
The Big Steppers Tour has raised the bar, maybe to impossible levels, for every hip-hop show that follows – offering us an extraordinary glimpse into the creative mind and the raw vulnerabilities of one of this generation's most important artists.
— Matthew Denvir (@TrowaAyanami) November 14, 2022