Kendrick Lamar, Baby Keem, Tanna Leone, AO Arena Manchester, 16/11/2022

The Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers tour concludes its European run in Manchester, as Kendrick Lamar proves why he’s perfectly rated at where he is. Jack Cinnamond reports.

The show opens with a small set by Tanna Leone, a Big Steppers feature, that does the job at welcoming the crowd, a couple of tracks of his debut.

As expected with the opening act, Leone‘s performance is short and snappy, leaving room for more in the future from such a young artist.

Collaborative artist Baby Keem acts as the main support for the evening, a role he’s been in for every night, and excels at the role.

Mostly tinging into his latest effort The Melodic Blue, Keem tears through the set with pure intensity, the stage lighting taking everything to that next level.

ORANGE SODA“, “HONEST“, and tracks from his sophomore album are the high standouts, but entirely, Keem feels as-if he’s more than popular enough to fill out decent venues himself.

Wonderfully, the Big Steppers tour isn’t afraid to allow the opening artists to use better production, something that often is overlooked.

The crowd simply becomes unglued as an interlude of “Savior” begins to play, the lights still out, no signs of life from the curtained main stage, but from the end of the walkway, a series of people, all pictured in black-and-white garb, walk to the center on-time.

The sharp-tones of a violin the background to their rhytmic walk, the curtain raises as they walk into the pitch black stage, as it ends, briefly the AO is urgently quiet.

Before a rich action on the piano is heard, the screen reverting to a bright white, dancers from moments before adorned on a prop-bed, opposite sits the man of the hour, Kendrick Lamar seated at the piano, back turned and joined by his vantriloquist-self, leaning into “United in Grief“, a beautiful and barberous-toned track from Mr. Morale.

The tempo builds at a quickening pace, before his high-pitched line cuts it out, blackout. Signs of the times for tonight, the crowd are eating every second.

Spotlight lights ground halfway up the walkway, slowly, Lamar makes his way there with his dummy-self before continuing “United in Grief“, the dummy barking out the lines just as quickly as the man himself, a small sign that this show is leaning into a special territory.

The voice of Helen Mirren interludes, as it does throughout seemingly playing the role of Mr. Morale‘s therapist, but also our narrator for the evening.

Entering into “N95“, the early standout of Big Steppers, the crowd check-on every line of the song’s spoken intro, before Lamar dives right in. Kendrick‘s razor-edged lyricism marked with his intent, a song devoted to the ideas that we all hide behind items, is a dagger early on.

Kendrick Lamar is the type of artist who could solely stand on centrestage, without the production, without the key support, and simply perform almost two hours of his catalogue, and still leave a mark.

Instead, the Compton rapper broadcasts himself as so effortlessly full-of-effort, clearly not satisfied with simply preforming, audiences are carried into the world of Lamar, and more importantly, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.

ELEMENT.“, the DAMN. cut comes in next, with Lamar squarely fitting into his domain, unlike some of his peers, Lamar doesn’t rap over his backings, rather approaching a fully live setting, something that is simply remarkable.

Worldwide Steppers” follows with the lights reflecting Lamar‘s imposing figure onto the sheet-curtain behind, mismatching his live shadow with graphic shows around him, before diving right into good kid cut “Backseat Freestyle” that sounds gigantic.

Kendrick stood on the first stage on his walkway set-up, a bright-white square tile-light above him as he performs “Rich Spirit“, the light turning as he does, the piano of “Rich” acts as another interlude, with Lamar walking up the stage in beat to each key tone, until he reaches his piano, playing the opening to “HUMBLE.

He’s joined again by his backing dancers, which is the perfect stage to note how flawless the choreography is this evening, with them moving to the DAMN. hit.

Lamar stands at the piano, as he’s engulfed by the floor below, to darkness. The small breaks every few songs feel purposefully intended, not only for him, but for the crowd taking this spectacle in.

The stage illumites dimly as Kendrick sits alone on a chair, breaking into the deeply personal “Father Time“, the minimal backgrounds and production make it feel special.

The spoken intro to “M.A.A.d city” is chanted by fans, as the stage pops with pyro and strobes into the earlier slice.

Tonight doesn’t feel like just a trip through Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, but also a crawl through Kendrick‘s Pulitzer-winning catalogue of masterpieces.

The shadows on the curtain at the main stage come alive again, preforming the intro to “Purple Hearts“, almost like a theatrical play that comes to life with precise musical perfection.

“You could be anywhere in the world, but you’re here with us” Lamar notes to the crowd, hanging on every word.

King Kunta” arrives next, as the adoring Manchester crowd echoes every sentiment, strangely only one of two appearances of his breakthrough To Pimp a Butterfly on this tour.

Back-to-back snippets are presented, first “LOYALTY.”, and afterwards the chant-along “Swimming Pools (Drank)“, an appreciated duo, before “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” is brought out.

Kendrick” chants echo throughout the packed venue, before “Die Hard“, followed by “LUST.“. Familiar themes as the crowd raises again for “D.N.A“, the loudest they’ve been so far, rapping each line opposite Lamar on centre stage.

Captivating the first stop along the walkway, Lamar practically keels, looking down as he enters “Count Me Out“, the shadow behind him showing the same figure, arrows pierced in his back, a picturesque sight.

Finally, he takes to the final stage along his arena encompassing production, notably high-above him is the now internet famous box.

However first, we slide into good kid track “Money Trees“, with a few flickers of the record spread throughout the Big Steppers tour, marking mad city‘s 10th anniversary.

Shortly after “LOVE.“, the stage goes dark, as we’re treated to an ear-thumping beat as the box makes its way down, the British audience so far has loved the “Kendrick’s in a Box” footballesque chant, of course to the timing of KC & the Sunshine Band‘s “Give It Up“. British culture ingenuity, I would summerize.

The voiceover of Helen Mirren‘s therapist decided that it was time for Mr. Morale‘s COVID test, as Lamar stands centre in the box surrounded by hazmat guards.

The scene is acted out, before Lamar dives into To Pimp a Butterfly‘s signature cut, “Alright“, which sends the AO into a frenzy, loving every moment of the hit.

Manchester, are we entertained?” the therapist asks, to the crowd’s jubilee response, the common theme is noted as Morale is told his test was positive, and that the smoke, from the stage below, won’t hurt.

Whilst an outside eye would take to the pandemic-era theme of the tour, the lyricism and overall imagery doesn’t suggest this at all, more-so, the idea that Kendrick Lamar has been pigeonholed into being the role model, something that he doesn’t wish to be, stuffed into the box, hiding behind the dummy, all MacGuffin’s to Lamar‘s psyche.

The slow brooding “Mirror” follows up, as the platform raises above the crowd even further, pitching Lamar and the box high above the Manchester crowd, before he enters “Silent Hill“.

Baby Keem returns for “vent“, which pitches him on the first stage, directly opposite Lamar, in a vivid standoff between the two.

Their rundown, the late portion of the set that’s dedicated to the three The Melodic Blue cuts that have them together, feels a tad tiresome, with the duo attempting to raise the crowd higher and higher.

Lamar notes that they’re trying something different, with a camera on-stage, “filming this to take back to L.A” he mentions, potentially for a music video or tour film, most likely the former noting the Amazon Paris concert a few shows earlier.

Although the whole thing takes far too long to get into, but worth it once they collaborate on “a life of pain” and finally, the personal “family ties“.

After Keem takes absence again, “Crown” is aired out and followed shortly by “Mr. Morale“, which unites Kendrick with opener Tanna Leone, who is set on the main stage between fireworks and fire-pyro, for a massive arena spectacular.

The finale, “Savior“, brings the whole Big Steppers performance full circle, utilizing the techniques that simply have astonished the Manchester audience, ending with Lamar leaving through the floor by his piano as the curtain draws down, a smile on his face. Mirren’s narrator congratulates Mr. Morale on escaping the box, before finally asking if he can stay out to end.

Again, Kendrick Lamar is that gifted, that he doesn’t need to hold himself to the production that he brought to the Big Steppers tour, a two hour masterclass of iconography, visual statements, and a exceptionally profound setlist left everybody with their jaws down.

Following his Glastonbury performance in June, and the critical attention that Lamar has gained for Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, you would’ve expected nothing less, but instead, given more, a five-star showcase.

Kendrick Lamar‘s Big Steppers tour will end in Australia, and New Zealand next month, tickets are still available.

Words by Jack Cinnamond.


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