Kendrick Lamar’s Big Steppers Tour is a work of art (Barclays Center night 2 review)

Since Kendrick Lamar appeared on stage during the Barclays Center Saturday night (8/6) stop of the Big Steppers Tour – his second of two consecutive nights at the Brooklyn arena and the second of three shows in the New York area this weekend -end – you could tell he was about to put on the show of his life, and he spent the next 90 minutes doing just that. I’ve seen Kendrick put on a number of life-affirming shows over the years, but the Big Steppers Tour is on an entirely different level and unlike anything he’s ever done. You’d expect nothing less from the first rapper to win a Pulitzer Prize, but the whole experience felt like high art, intense choreography and remarkable dancers with shifting aesthetics from staging to script that tied the whole setlist together. It was too exciting to feel pretentious, and no matter how artistic things got, it was still as much of a rap show as the ones Kendrick used to play in clubs and warehouses with just him and a DJ. And just watching Kendrick rap is still one of the most amazing things you can see in a live music setting. The props, dancers, and costume changes aren’t crutches to make up for anything, they just added so much awesome imagery to what would have been a great rap show regardless.

Like Kendrick’s new album Mr. Morale and Big Steps, the show opened with “United In Grief”, with the first line of the song “I hope you find peace of mind in this life” played on the AP as Kendrick’s dancers marched down the floor towards the curtained stage. When the curtain fell, it revealed a staging that mirrored the album’s therapy session theme, complete with a dimly lit bed and nightstand. On the other side of the stage was a piano on which sat a ventriloquist dummy and a man playing the piano with his back to the stage. That man was Kendrick himself, as everyone at Barclays Center realized once he opened his mouth to start rapping. When it came to the livelier second half of the song, Kendrick stood front and center of the stage on a mic stand with the ventriloquist dummy, who rapped along. And when he went straight into the album’s second song, his single “N95,” it turned into a straight-up rap show with everyone in the room screaming. He had already shown so many different sides of this show, and there were only two songs.

Kendrick started the show with the same punch that opens the album, but The Big Steppers Tour never reflected. Mr. Morale and Big Steps entirely. After those first two songs, he entered a series of old fan favorites, and every song he played – whether old or new – fits perfectly into the broadcast sequence. The show had a narrator, playing the role of Kendrick, aka Mr. Morale’s therapist, and that helped give the show a storyline that continued throughout. The story was similar but not identical to that of the new album, and as the album is, the show itself felt like a great concept. Some concerts consist of nothing more than an artist taking the stage and performing their songs live, but Kendrick clearly designed this show to not just be a live performance, but his own work of art. It’s the kind of show that really deserves a concert film, or at least a live album. It’s as cohesive and conceptual as any of Kendrick’s albums in its own way.

Kendrick’s 20+ song setlist was roughly split in half between Mr. Morale and Big Steps songs and older songs, and older songs have often been integrated into the show’s narrative as seamlessly as the new ones. “DNA” and “Loyalty” worked perfectly with the theme of therapy, and “Alright” was recontextualized in response to COVID; during the show, Kendrick “gets COVID”, and is then put in a quarantine bubble with four people in hazmat suits. Then he plays “Okay” as his way of saying “We’ll get through this too eventually.” The oldest songs received the biggest crowd reactions of the night, but the new songs passed really as well. Mr. Morale and Big Steps is one of the standout albums released this year, but I admittedly wondered if the songs would translate well live; the album is such an immersive experience and not really focused on crowd-pleasing songs. So I was pleasantly surprised how many songs on the new album actually did transform into crowd-pleasing chants in a live setting. The hooks are a little sneakier on the new album, but they’re there and they can feel just as huge as his longtime favorites. And when he got to the parts that were more about listening to him carefully, he didn’t miss a word or a beat, and those verses landed with impact.

The Big Steppers Tour was often as energetic as any past Kendrick tour. Sometimes he would kick his ass, surrounded by dancers, with explosions of pyro behind him. Other times he would lead the crowd in a song so classic he didn’t even have to sing it himself. For a few songs, he was in an elevated cube, several feet above the stage. But this tour also had darker moments than any Kendrick tour in the past. He did the mesmerizing “Father Time” while seated in a chair and returned to the piano for a calm but breathtaking rendition of “Crown.” It made for a show with a wider range than any past Kendrick show, and every ambitious decision was earned, no moment was wasted.

Towards the end of the show, Kendrick released his first guest acts, Baby Keem and Tanna Leonewhich both appear on Mr. Morale and Big Steps and who are both signed to Kendrick’s new pgLang company. Keem and Kendrick did “Family Ties,” their classic instant collab from Keem’s 2021 album melodic blue, aided by tons of pyro, and the crowd ate every second of it, which is no surprise since Keem’s own set also drove the place crazy. It was obviously Kendrick’s night, but Keem proved he was a rising star too, and if you didn’t come on the show as a Keem fan, you probably left as one. Kendrick also brought in Tanna Leone to play her role in “Mr. Morale” (also with a fair amount of pyro), and that was a treat, too. Tanna’s opening set was short but sweet, clocking in at around 15 minutes, but it was enough time to leave an impression and warm us up for a great show.

Watch a full video from one of the tour’s previous dates and check out the full list below. Kendrick’s run in the New York area ends at UBS Arena on Sunday (8/7).

set list (via Setlist.fm)
United in mourning
N95
ELEMENT.
money trees
Bitch, don’t kill my vibe
Rear freestyle
Mirror
King Kunta
DNA.
HUMBLE.
LOYALTY.
Very well
die hard
Father time
purple hearts
Don’t count on me
family ties (Baby Keem song, featuring Baby Keem)
TO LIKE.
Mr. Morale (with Tanna Leone)
silent Hill
Crown
Saviour

Christopher S. Washington