Dressed in a black-and-yellow flannel--topped off with a gray trucker hat--Kendrick Lamar floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee during his headlining set at ESSENCE Festival tonight.
With To Pimp a Butterfly—the title of his Grammy-winning second album—emblazoned on the backdrop of his stage set, Lamar demonstrated why he is arguably the best live rap performer on the planet.
Entering to the instrumental strains of the Earth, Wind & Fire classic "Can't Hide Love," K-Dot showed what he has learned from such musical greats. Indeed, the musicality of his band, the way he ebbed and flowed with them, suggested more of a jazz and classic R&B aesthetic than a hip-hop one.
Still, Lamar is an MC's MC. And he nimbly shifted flows and moods throughout his set, featuring tracks from his insta-classic albums good kid, m.A.A,.d city and To Pimp a Butterfly.
Opening with TPAB's "For Free?, he seamlessly weaved through a range of tracks that displayed the breadth of his talent.
Highlights included a crowd-pleasing "Backseat Freestyle." When a beaming Kendrick rapped, "Damn, I feel amazing," he looked like he was indeed feeling just that.
Other highlights included both "good kid" and "m.A.A.d city" as well as "Swimming Pools (Drank)." During the latter, Lamar exhorted the crowd: "We f----d" up in here tonight or what? Make some noise!"
Despite his small stature, Lamar carries the stage with ease without dancers or heavy production. That was evident on "Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe," a hip-hop slow jam that he turned into a Superdome vibe-out.
"King Kunta" turned the funk up with its bumping bass line, while "i" rode a breezy, feel-good groove with Lamar's self-love mantra of "I love myself."
But it was the finale Alright" that was truly everything. It was an arena chant-along, hands-in-the-air moment. Breaking the song down and building it up again, Kendrick was so much more than all right.