Review: Kendrick Lamar at Summerfest

Kendrick Lamar leans on older material in his “bustling freight train” of a performance headlining the Marcus Amphitheater at Summerfest.

Not often will you find a musician who only has released three albums largely eschewing the latest of the bunch for an earlier effort, but that’s exactly what happened last night at the Marcus Amphitheater. Compton, Calif., rapper Kendrick Lamar leaned heavily on 2012’s major label debut good kid, m.A.A.d city throughout the set before closing out with three singles from March’s critically-praised, jazzy, musical left-turn To Pimp A Butterfly and returning for an encore of a deeper cut from the album (“Hood Politics”) and two selections from 2011’s Section.80.

But even missing out on some elusive new material couldn’t harsh the buzz of the frenzied crowd—a crowd that jumped the rails separating the lawn area and the mainly empty bleacher seats before the headliner began, storming past the dumbfounded security in droves. The night was nothing if not completely satisfying, displaying some of Lamar’s best attributes, that of being a consummate showman live and one of rap’s most fearless personalities.

“Now that we’re playing again, it’s only right to continue that experience,” Lamar said, alluding to his performance in 2012 at The Rave, before launching into the silky, methodical radio hit “Swimming Pools (Drank).” The screen behind him projected videos during the entire performance, a nod to Lamar’s cinematic lyrical touches, but the images were never more personal than during this cut, which showed the childhood home movie that served as the good kid, m.A.A.d city album cover, the one where’s there’s a 40 sitting on the same table as his baby bottle.

Excluding the striking projections, the stage design was remarkably bare, this just a few days removed from performing “Alright” at the BET Awards atop a graffiti-ed cop car and tattered American flags. But the less-is-more approach certainly worked considering the good kid, m.A.A.d city-centric setlist.

The show felt achingly personal, employing a less political sting than To Pimp A Butterfly‘s most wrenching moments. The frenetic momentum very rarely dropped—perhaps due to Lamar’s constant insistence to keep the energy levels soaring, or more likely, the fact that he had a five-piece live band backing him up every step of the way. But Lamar stopped the bustling freight train just once for “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” where he requested the audience to illuminate their cell phones, the meaning of which he described: “What these lights represent are the stars pulled down to make dreams come true.” The night’s most touching moment, to be sure. He didn’t stay in that mood for long, though, as he immediately followed with those three To Pimp A Butterfly hits “i,” “King Kunta” and “Alright.” “I’ll be back! I’ll be back!” he repeated during the night’s closer. Hopefully, next time it’s with more of the new material.



Kevin is a freelance writer residing in Milwaukee. He’s contributed to The Shepherd Express, Third Coast Daily, Pop Matters and the sadly now-defunct A.V. Club Milwaukee. He looks forward to forging a deeper connection with the city’s impressive music scene during his gig as a Music Notes blogger. His talents include music criticism, riding a bicycle, drinking tasty beers and a crafty croquet swing. His weaknesses comprise Jean-Claude Van Damme movies, professional wrestling and his ever-growing record collection. He’s in desperate need to find more physical (and hard drive) space for the exceptional albums Milwaukee musicians keep churning out.