A Supernova Named Kendrick Lamar Torches the March Madness Music Fest

Kendrick Lamar
March Madness Music Festival
Discovery Green
April 2, 2016

Moments before Villanova decided to unleash the perfect offensive game against Oklahoma inside NRG Stadium, Kendrick Lamar was prepping. He was discussing basketball with the TBS crew of Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Clark Kellogg. Even when breaking down how good he was at Centennial High School in Compton, he exuded nothing but confidence. When he’s on his particular stage, surrounded by a band and a throng of screaming fans, the diminutive Lamar is rap’s most engaging live performer.

In Houston? He’s the unofficial West Coast mayor of the city. His face is displayed on billboards across town promoting 93.7 The Beat. He can perform for free, perform two shows in one night, perform in soccer venues and more. In other words, Kendrick Lamar has known more performance spaces in Houston than any other rapper who isn’t from here.

This past weekend, Lamar took the stage as the Saturday headliner of the March Madness Music Festival, which hit capacity almost a full hour and a half before he began performing “Untitled No. 07” from untitled unmastered. For some, the best spot to catch Lamar was either the Ferris wheel on the festival grounds or one of the nearby high-rises. Sorry, Jason Derulo, you did most of your fun inside of NRG during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo last month. Sorry, Twenty One Pilots, you’re a decent alt-rock band and all, but no single rap performer can do what Kendrick Lamar does.

Drake needs guests; Jay Z has a massive catalog. Chance the Rapper may come close, as his shows turn into spiritual revivals. Kanye West has arguably the most elaborate stage design in all of music. Lamar? Lamar can twist a record from his surprise EP that arrived at No. 1 on the Billboard charts last month, such as “Untitled No. 7,” and keep people chanting “levitate” until they can no longer feel their voice.

What Houston missed out on during Lamar’s Kunta’s Groove Sessions mini-tour was made up with the debut performance of untitled tracks plus a combination of tracks from good kid, m.A.A.d city and To Pimp A Butterfly. “m.A.A.d. City” still rings off like riot music, the soundtrack to glass breaking and anarchy. “Hood Politics," the most accessible track from Butterfly, let thousands of people try to yell “boo boo” without feeling childish about it. This wasn’t Day For Night, where Lamar crushed it with a medley of cuts that made up his Grammy-winning masterpiece. This was something closer to master theater.

With the sun closing down behind him, Lamar performed “Untitled No. 7” for the second time, this one for the TBS audience just before North Carolina battled Syracuse. Everything seemed tied in from all angles: the NCAA, television and the crowd at Discovery Green to anoint Lamar as a star, and the most important rapper in America. From Snapchat to Instagram to Twitter, his image filtered through as throngs of people chanted “We Gon’ Be Alright” as if it were the access code to Heaven.

People have fallen in love with “Alright,” the most definitive rap song of 2015, and every time he performs it, it's cathedral for fans. Doesn’t matter how many fans, how hot or packed in they are. They jump, they yell, they scream as Lamar moves like the conductor of a human orchestra. Their voices are his favorite instrument to toy with. And right now, nobody in rap is playing the role better.

Untitled No. 7
For Free
These Walls
The Art of Peer Pressure
Money Trees
Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe
Backseat Freestyle
Swimming Pool
m.A.A.d. City (6x)
Hood Politics
Untitled No. 7

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Brandon Caldwell has been writing about music and news for the Houston Press since 2011. His work has also appeared in Complex, Noisey, the Village Voice & more.
Contact: Brandon Caldwell