Even in a musical genre steeped in braggadocio, Kendrick Lamar came into Saturday's Xcel Energy Center concert with an unusually high amount of hype to live up to.
The Los Angeles hip-hop star skipped the Twin Cities on tour behind his Grammy-winning 2015 breakout album "To Pimp a Butterfly," so his rise to a sold-out arena concert felt like quite a major leap from his last appearance in town, a 2012 gig at Epic nightclub. Then came this week's new issue of Rolling Stone: "The greatest rapper alive," the magazine declared next to a cover photo of Lamar.
"We'll see," were words probably on the minds of many of the 15,000 attendees before the concert, especially at an arena where Kanye West, Jay-Z and Drake have all performed in the past half-decade.
The words on their minds after the 90-minute performance probably aren't printable in a newspaper.
Saturday's show really was a stunner. Not only did Lamar's lyrical prowess shine through as brightly as the yellow tracksuit he wore to the stage for the 90-minute set, he also proved to be a dynamo of a live performer — a near-opposite of the stiff presence he showed in 2012.
One sign that Lamar is confident in his abilities nowadays: Unlike many other arena hip-hop shows, openers YG and D.R.A.M. each were given ample time and a full-scale production. The sing-songy, dread-headed D.R.A.M. even had a drummer and keyboardist with him, who kept playing as he delivered his hit "Broccoli" from the middle of the arena floor surrounded by excited fans.
Lamar's fellow Compton export YG offered more straight-ahead bangers without a lot of fanfare.
After kicking off his set with the first of several vintage karate videos with his alter-ego Kung Fu Kenny, Lamar rose through the stage and sat there like an ultra-focused sensei, waiting a good half-minute in a crouched position as the crowd went gaga. He then launched into "DNA," with all the precision and agility of Bruce Lee.
Compared to other noteworthy arena rap outings, Lamar's performance most closely recalled Kanye's triumphant Glow in the Dark Tour of 2009, the way it boasted an impressive visual production — including a cool overhead video screen that moved and tilted out toward the crowd — but still relied heaviest on the rapper's commanding, solitary, one-man-army approach.
For the first half-hour, the slender, 30-year-old artist stayed in a high-wired zone delivering song after song in rapid succession, his best lyrics slicing like swords in those kung-fu videos.
"Last LP I tried to lift black artists, but it's a difference between black artists and wack artists," he slyly summarized in "ELEMENT," one of many highlights off his latest record, "DAMN," a return to his more booming, angry roots.
Some of the most energetic moments came from the rapper's steamy 2012 debut, "Good Kid, m.A.A.d City," including the anti-alcohol slam "Swimming Pools (Drank)" and especially "m.A.A.d city." He actually took a short break before the latter song, storing up his breath before he fiercely chronicled violence in his old neighborhood ("Bodies on top of bodies / IVs on top of IVs / The coroner between the sheets like the Isleys").
For sharp contrast, Lamar then slid into two of his slinkier, mellow-cool songs, "PRIDE" and "LOVE," the former delivered on a small thrust stage lit up by the audience's cellphone lights. He gradually built the tempos back up from there, starting with the snarky "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe" and eventually peaking with his first true radio hit for the pre-encore finale, "HUMBLE."
The one disappointing thing about the concert — especially for Twin Citians who missed out on the 2015 tour — was its lack of tunes from "To Pimp a Butterfly," which admittedly boasted more of a psychedelic-soul sonic palette that might not have fit in so well.
Lamar did finally sneak in the funky "To Pimp" jam "Wesley's Theory" near the end of the show, right before "HUMBLE." The latter made for an incredible climax: Fans sang most of the song while Lamar stood there soaking it up. He came off anything but humble at that moment, and he damn well shouldn't have.