Check out highlights from Kendrick Lamar's intimate concert Friday night at Brooklyn's Music Hall of Williamsburg.

By Eric Renner Brown
December 17, 2016 at 01:28 PM EST
Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

America has changed tremendously since Kendrick Lamar last stormed the Big Apple. When the 29-year-old hip-hop visionary headlined the city’s inaugural Panorama Music Festival in July — and Hillary Clinton appeared likely to win the presidential election — his songs pulsed with cautious optimism. “Donald Trump will never, ever be the f—ing president,” Lamar declared at the time, and his rhymes about America’s social ills mirrored his assumption that Barack Obama’s successor in the Oval Office would continue to expand his progressive agenda.

History, of course, had other plans. But while the young crowd that filed into Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg for the rapper’s surprise return to New York on Friday night may have expected some explosive words from Lamar, he largely steered clear of politics, instead communicating through his formidable catalog and contagious positivity.

Read on for highlights from Lamar’s surprise Brooklyn gig and see the portion of it that streamed online below.

Lamar relished the Hall’s small crowd.

Parts of Lamar’s set later streamed online as part of an American Express promotion, but the Music Hall of Williamsburg’s capacity topped out at 550 guests. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been in front of a small and intimate crowd like this,” Lamar said, grinning, after his shock-and-awe opening sequence of “untitled 07 | levitate” and “Institutionalized.” Headlining the festival circuit can leave some artists rusty when returning to smaller rooms, but Lamar easily connected with the audience — and without losing the grandiosity that makes his music special.

He made political statements in subtle ways.

At Panorama and his other recent concerts, Lamar has juxtaposed his timely songs with grainy, black-and-white footage of figures including Ronald Reagan and O.J. Simpson that’s more Bruce Conner than boom-bap. The effect — best used in juxtaposing the time Obama awkwardly shuffled with Ellen DeGeneres to Lamar’s ebullient encore “i” — returned Friday night, being project both behind the MC and on the floor of the stage he walked. And Lamar’s attire told another quiet story. “Working class hero,” read the text on the front of his white t-shirt, beneath a simple rendering of Robin Hood. When he’d turn to his backing band, another phrase was visible: “Steal from the rich and give to the poor.”

His backing band brought the goods.

Confined to the Hall’s relatively meager stage, Lamar’s four-person backing band — guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums — turbocharged the MC’s jazz-inflected instrumentals. The evening’s revelation was guitarist Rob Gueringer — “freaky motherf—in’ Rob,” in Lamar’s words — who infused cuts like “m.A.A.d. city” and “King Kunta” with high-octane, six-string fireworks.

At one point, the evening turned into an open mic night.

Before closing his main set with “Alright,” Lamar heard a fan yelling out who wanted to challenge him on the mic. “Somebody here saying they wanna challenge me and s—?” asked the rapper, who’s considered by many to be the best in the game, with a bemused smile. When no one stepped up, Lamar playfully turned up the heat: “You can’t sneak challenge me and then run! Where you going?” His banter yielded a young man who came to the stage and fumbled over a beat provided by Lamar’s band, as the MC bobbed his head in good faith in the background. But rather than resume the set, Lamar next invited two, far more capable members of the crowd onstage to freestyle with him. What first seemed like audience engagement gone wrong became an off-the-cuff highlight of the show.

Lamar is, ultimately, an artist of the people.

Personal connection is easily lost at larger venues. But it shouldn’t surprise that Lamar, who has a reputation for his peerless humility in a genre packed with braggadocious personalities, brought warm, communal energy to the Hall. The Robin Hood shirt and spontaneous freestyle — sure. But Lamar took every opportunity to shake hands with fans and, when those at the front of the crowd seemed worn out, he distributed water bottles. “Have a sip,” he instructed when he saw people jockeying to keep the bottles, “don’t put your motherf—in’ mouth on it! Pass it around.” In a classic, club-show moment, Lamar was escorted from the stage through the crowd afterward; one woman who momentarily shook his hand shouted ecstatically that she’d never wash it.

“untitled 07 | levitate”
“Backseat Freestyle”
“m.A.A.d. City”
“Swimming Pools (Drank)”
“Collard Greens”
“THat Part”
“These Walls”
“untitled 02 | 06.23.2014”
“Complexion (A Zulu Love)”
“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”
“Money Trees”
“m.A.A.d. City (Reprise)”
“King Kunta”

“A.D.H.D. (Reprise)”