Kendrick Lamar stands about 5-foot-6. But on Friday night, as he loomed over the Delaware River waterfront like Godzilla, he felt 40 feet tall.
Being in the presence of an artist of Lamar's caliber is a present, but these expectations place additional stress on the reciprocal nature of live music. I've seen countless rappers in concert over the years, and far too many fail to re-create their on-wax ferocity when handed a hot microphone. Lamar's just different — one of many reasons it now seems limiting to describe him as just an emcee.
The hardware alone is compelling. The Compton native is among the most decorated people in modern music, his mantle stacked with Grammys, Billboard 200 No. 1's and certified platinum plaques. Lamar's accomplished the tricky feat of transcending his native genre without ever shunning it, a level-up his hip-hop Salieri, Drake, likely covets. But even the shiniest resumé can look dull if you can't back it up in the flesh — a transaction he tackles head-on with his taut, tenacious, and imaginative TDE Championship Tour.
Led in by a formidable showing by his fellow Top Dawg Entertainment pillar and Black Hippy bandmate Schoolboy Q, Lamar seemed to exploding into existence on the BB&T Pavilion stage, materializing from a seizing maelstrom of pyrotechnic plumes and disorienting Close Encounters lights. Holding court from an elevated platform as his live band raged from the wings, he immediately leaped into "DNA," roaming in a roomy Formula 1 racing suit done in the Jordan 1 colorway, complete with an oversize black swoosh across the chest.
During 2017's tour in support of the acclaimed DAMN., Lamar opened with that same track, backed by an enormous arrow graphic instructing us to "LOOK DOWN." This time, he took the opportunity to remind us of the banner year he's had: black graffiti script on a white background screamed "PULITZER KENNY," making joyous note of his latest, greatest trophy.
It was instantly the most Instagrammable moment of the evening, setting the tone for the care paid to the visuals accompanying Lamar's hit-heavy set list. From the burning sun crawling up behind him during "ELEMENT." to the trippy deep-space imagery bolstering the early-career "Untitled 07," each song offered its own synesthetic sensation, accompaniments that showcased Lamar's full-throated approach without stepping on his toes.
The Championship Tour, which on past stops has featured fellow TDE artist SZA (the singer unfortunately missed Camden due to a vocal cord issue), is cleverly athletic-themed. A polo shirt-sporting Schoolboy rapped alongside a fancy golf cart, Lamar brought out the race car and checkered flags to match his apparel, and featured guest Jay Rock hopped out in a basketball jersey, backed by the retired-number banners you see dangling above NBA courts.
Throughout the night, Lamar employed the enormous screens behind him as his personal Jumbotron, streaming live shots of the audience. Pale blue laser lights that wouldn't seem out of place during melodramatic team intros sliced through the air to ramp up the impact of fan-favorite tracks like "Backseat Freestyle" and "m.A.A.d city." At one point, an associate even wheeled out a TDE-branded T-shirt cannon, sprinkling the pavilion sections in tightly bundled cotton bombs.
Even if you were to strip away all these well-crafted bells and whistles — and let's even lose the band, while we're at it — I have the feeling Lamar would still thrive. Case in point: the goose bump-inducing performance of his biggest hit, "Humble," which closed out the night. After tossing out the first few bars, he shut his mouth and silenced his band, pulling a masterful Tom Sawyer move by getting Camden to do his job for him. In impressively clear unison, they ran through multiple verses, with Lamar interjecting every so often to keep the pace.