Kendrick Lamar's 'DAMN' Tour Cements Him as a Legend

Kendrick Lamar at Coachella 2017. No media photography was approved for the DAMN Tour.
Kendrick Lamar at Coachella 2017. No media photography was approved for the DAMN Tour. Photo by Mathew Tucciarone/LA Weekly
The DAMN Tour
Feat. Kendrick Lamar, Travis Scott, D.R.A.M.
Toyota Center
July 15, 2017

“Can we screw this shit up one time?” Kendrick Lamar said.

It was night three of the DAMN tour, his ‘70s karate flick-inspired latest jaunt around North America. Coachella got the earliest preview of the tour back in April when Lamar closed out the festival. Phoenix and Dallas got to play around with the smoothed-out version of the Coachella set. Clad in a black jumpsuit inspired by Don Cheadle’s Kung-Fu Kenny character from Rush Hour 2, Lamar joyfully led the sold out Toyota Center in a chant from “ELEMENT,” but with a little urgency near the very end.

He repeated himself with even more emphasis. “Can we SCREW this shit up one time?” That was Texas talk, Houston-specific. The crowd roared even louder.

For 90 minutes, Kendrick Lamar rapped. Double-time verses; crawling, snippy shots at faceless enemies; bars so hard you rapped back to your friends and made stank faces. With an elaborate stage setup consisting of rising platforms, a tilted LED board, side plated lights that remained on him constantly and performers in tune with the theme, the DAMN tour lived up to Lamar’s promise. When he left here last April after performing at Discovery Green, he told the faithful then he would return bigger and better.

Coming back to a city with a short film inside of a concert about finding the Glow and putting yourself in a cage adorned by bright lights may be as big as one can get.

Photo by Mathew Tucciarone/LA Weekly
When the lights dropped down and the film The Legend of Kung-Fu Kenny began playing on secondary screens, fans began to murmur. Their roars only deafened by the time Lamar rose from the center stage and the Fox News clip of Fox & Friends loathing his lines from to pimp a butterfly's “Alright” played behind him. One loud pyrotechnic later, Toyota Center became a throbbing, body-shifting mass of people jumping with glee, fast-rapping “DNA.” from rap hands on down to spastic feet.

No one sat down as Lamar held serve. He played up to energy and showmanship, making sure to stop the frantic and manic “XXX.” from DAMN. and switch it to the already chaotic rap interrogation that is good kid, m.A.A.d city’s “M.A.A.D City.” It’s still fun as it was nearly five years ago to rap with precision, “Bodies on top of bodies, IV’s on top of IV’s/ Obviously the coroner between the sheets like the Isleys.” Because that is a song driven by anger, and the normally calm Lamar can launch into that mode at any given moment.

“First time I came out here only about 100 people showed up, but those 100 people were turned the fuck up,” he said of his first Warehouse Live experience. Many of them were back in Toyota Center Saturday, with their friends, family members and anyone within earshot that they could bring. Lamar delivers a show; tip-toeing the line between revival and concert. True to the nature of his kung-fu flick, Kendrick kicked ass, caused James Harden and Chris Paul to lose their minds backstage and turned people from all walks of life into believers. One guy in particular on the floor, a heavyset white guy who couldn’t have been more than 30, channeled the spirit of Petey Pablo’s “Raise Up,” throwing his orange T-shirt around like a helicopter during “Money Trees” and literally anything else Kendrick would do.

“Alright” still feels like temple, a song where the heavens part and the people on Earth just shout for salvation and release from all the bullshit. When Lamar closed with “HUMBLE.,” his first-ever No. 1 single, the crowd stopped him from rapping and finished that frantic, yelp-inspired song for him. He could only pause in amazement, nodding as if his work was done. Kendrick brings it out of people, to the point where rapping a full-blown confessional such as “FEEL.” is therapeutic in nature.

Kung-Fu Kenny has the glow now. From sparse shows at SXSW and Warehouse seven years ago to sold-out arenas. And he’s not sitting down for anybody.

Travis Scott at Revention Music Center in May - PHOTO BY MARCO TORRES
Travis Scott at Revention Music Center in May
Photo by Marco Torres
So, How Were the Openers? Less than two months after finding himself firmly planted as the city’s biggest rap star at Revention Music Center, Travis Scott returned home again. Only this time he was supposed to play the undercard to Lamar. Leave it to Travis to up the ante on his own accord.

Playing a truncated version of his Birds Eye View set, Scott emptied the stage to give himself maximum room to thrash, jump and party. The bird that dominated the set design for the “Birds” tour decided to get in on the action. Perched high near the stage, the animatronic bird turned make shift platform for Scott to run through “coordinate” and “through the late night.” By the time he took the stage, Toyota was 90 percent full, making me wonder how easily he could sell out the city’s biggest arena.

“90210,” from birds, bled into his guest verse from SZA’s “Love Galore” and for a split-second, Travis took a seat and surveyed all below him. Here he was, the city’s boy king impressed with his own creation. He would have jumped from the bird Jeff Hardy-style if he could; the Toyota Center somehow found a way to contain his usual wildman stage persona.

By comparison, D.R.A.M. used his 30-minute set to relish in the moment. With a childlike grin on his face throughout, the Virginia singer and occasional rapper danced and vibed his way through hits such as 2014’s “Cha Cha” and last year’s “Broccoli.” The charming thing about DRAM is that even though he's the perfect lounge crooner, he sells it with an Everyman mystique. Even when you have zero game, earnest records such as “Cute” can win people over.

“Texas is one of my favorite places in the world,” he told the crowd with a cheesy mumble. “Houston is one of my favorite places in the world.” I wholeheartedly believe you, D.R.A.M. Truly, I do.

Personal Bias: I too, have a cousin who tells me to know my worth.

Overheard In the Crowd: The following exchange is proof positive that you can have a great song on the radio and still seem like a nobody:

“Who is that?”

The same person was rapping “Broccoli” word for word 15 minutes later.

The Crowd: Imagine a random exec for an insurance company wearing a DAMN T-shirt escorting his teenage daughters in. Then imagine a ton of kids dressed for summer camp meshing in with date night, prove my ex wrong and 'I’ma diehard fan since Day One' attire. That, is the universal crowd for a Kendrick Lamar show in 2017.

Random Notebook Dump: During the close of his set, Travis couldn't help but be excited about his Red Nation Gang. Chris Paul got a hero’s welcome. The Dynamo too. Apparently Houston is in a weird vortex where nothing but winners abound now. And just as he said that, the Astros finally lost their 30th game of the season. Don’t be a jinx, Trav.

Photo by Mathew Tucciarone/LA Weekly
King Kunta
untitled 07 | 2014 - 2016
untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.
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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