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SXSW 2013: Kendrick Lamar convinces a capacity crowd at AMH

March 16, 2013|By Randall Roberts | Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic
  • Rapper Kendrick Lamar, left, in conversation with Jessie Wright at the 2013 South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. Lamar appeared in an official showcase at Austin Music Hall on Friday.
Rapper Kendrick Lamar, left, in conversation with Jessie Wright at the… (Michael Buckner/Getty…)

This post has been corrected. See below for details.

At the Austin Music Hall on Friday night, Sway Calloway of MTV delivered a grand introduction for the night’s headliner, Kendrick Lamar.

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He explained that over the course of his hip hop life he’d hung out with Tupac in San Francisco, with Notorious B.I.G. in Brooklyn, with Kanye West in Chicago. He gave a shout-out to Bun B’s Houston, spoke of time spent with Jay-Z, referenced Long Beach and inferring with it the city’s rasta-rap ambassador Snoop Dogg/Lion. Then Sway made his way to Compton, whose fertile rap history stretches back to N.W.A. and its many offshoot successes -- and extends to the present. 

The implication, of course, was that Lamar, the 25-year-old Compton rapper whose breakout record “good kid, m.a.a.d city,” was one of the most acclaimed albums in 2012, stood alongside these masters. 

Stiff competition, and quite the challenge. All Lamar had to do was prove it at the packed and electric hall, wired with anticipation and feeling lucky to be in a such a tight venue while nearly as many futilely waited outside.

He did, and did it before a crowd who’d already internalized every word to every rhyme on “good kid.” He tore through many of them, his recorded beats tossed by his touring DJ and Top Dawg Entertainment producer Ali. When Lamar told his people to pump their fists, they did. They flashed three fingers, shouted in unison, at the rapper’s behest. Lamar let the crowd fill in the choruses and choice rhymes at will: Ali dropped the beat for a silent measure, fans rapped out the next line.

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Up in the VIP, otherwise high-strung executives rhymed along like teenagers. During a frenetic, assured take on ”Backstreet Freestyle,” two jocks near me weren’t even watching Lamar; they were facing each other and trading the rapper’s rhymes with each other -- as intimate and powerful a response that any musician could hope for. The devotion was palpable.

The brim of his black cap pulled low, Lamar walked the stage, easing his way into the Austin spotlight of a headlining gig after being on the undercard the last time he was here. But then he’d been doing this all week in a pick-and-choose style worthy of his Top Dawg status. 

This was a low-production, bare-bones gig: Just Lamar, Ali, a half-moon of insiders, heads nodding, surrounding the back of the stage. Lamar wasn’t here to impress with a fancy light show or well-imagined stage maneuvers, but with eloquent, well-imaged lyrics about Compton, Los Angeles, and the world he inhabits. He did it both alone and with fellow Black Hippy members Ab Soul, SchoolboyQ and Jay Rock, who came and went as needed -- in the process reminding fans of the exciting output to come from all of them.

Update: This original version of this post incorrectly identified the person who introduced Kendrick Lamar. It was Sway Calloway, and not, as originally written, Pusha T. We fixed the text accordingly. 

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Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit

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