Kendrick Lamar delights Toronto fans with elegant, energized show

Bespoke dancers, stylish setting frame rappers sizzling set.

Who: Kendrick Lamar
Where: Scotiabank Arena, Toronto
When: Fri., Aug. 12
Vibe: Big beats-powered neighbourhood summer BBQ party where everyone sings along
Highlight: Mesmerizing performance as Lamar sings Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe while elegant dancer in red dress drapes herself on, and moves with and against, the singer.
Next: Tue., Aug. 16, Schottenstein Center, Columbus, OH; various U.S. tour dates; Sun., Aug 28, Rogers Centre, Vancouver, BC

The crowd is already rising to a full boil after solid sets from openers Baby Keem and Tanna Leone, and Toronto fans are desperate for the return of their favourite Pulitzer Prize-winner, Kendrick Lamar. When the lights dim and about a dozen bespoke, elegantly dressed dancers emerge to slink across the extended stage towards a giant cube, a roof-rattling roar emerges — and that energy level is largely sustained for the 90-minute set.

The curtain drops to reveal Lamar, dressed in a black suit with jewel-encrusted glasses and a Michael Jackson-inspired, slightly oversized, spangled glove on his left hand as he tears through United in Grief. And while he doesn’t quite have M.J.’s moves, Lamar cuts a compellingly choreographed figure throughout the night.

Barely one more song in, Lamar unleashes his first blast of arena-warming pyro on N95, in a show that never stops being “massive” in its energy. In a set filled with drama, Lamar performs much of his latest release, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, plus a satisfying selection of his hits.

“Big stepping” is definitely a theme as Lamar routinely brings out his coterie of big-stepping dancers throughout the night, their presence adding an elegance and gravitas to the pandemonium of the proceedings.

The giant cube that dominates one end of the stage features a ramp running the length of the arena playing-surface to another smaller, square stage. The cube is alternately draped in fabric or has the curtain dropped at key moments revealing Lamar. The curtained cube proves an effective “shadow-dancing” backdrop throughout the night, adding ever-present drama to the proceedings as movement, shapes and silhouettes dance and move across the curtain.

While Lamar’s images and messages can be raw and the musical presentation sparse to focus on his lyrics, the show’s elegant setting is similar to lying down with a raw wound on silk sheets. With black and white setting the colour palette for the night, flashes of red dresses and coloured light seep into the show like a salve.

With an elegant dancer in a red dress draped on him while he — and the audience — sings Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe, Lamar and his dance partner provide a riveting, almost motionless, pas de deux.

Throughout the night — sometimes alone, sometimes with dancers — Lamar prowls the length of the performance area. Embracing themes from his new album and the pandemic-battling times we live in, Lamar makes his way to the non-cube end of the stage to emerge encased in an actual cube with four dancers in hazmat suits. The cube eventually rises and then it and the dancers disappear as Lamar performs on a rising platform above the crowd.

He is joined late in the show by openers: first Baby Keem, his cousin, to (appropriately) perform on the track Family Ties; later, Tanna Leone joins him on Mr. Morale.

And after one more track, Savior, that’s it. No hint of an encore, no muddled wondering what might come — just a voice announcing, “See you next time,” the house lights coming up and the show’s over.