By Eric Renner Brown
July 21, 2017 at 11:06 AM EDT
Ollie Millington/Redferns

Kendrick Lamar returned to Brooklyn on Thursday night for the New York stop of his first headlining arena trek, the DAMN. tour. Fresh off his scoring his first No. 1 hit with “HUMBLE.” earlier this year, the gig read like a victory lap for the acclaimed MC, as he tore through 22 songs from his last four projects in less than 80 minutes. While he’s eased up on the political soothsaying that defined his live sets, Lamar remains one of hip-hop’s most accomplished performers. On Thursday, he supplemented his verbose rhymes with flames and explosives, martial arts-themed dancers, and some well-placed video interludes. When he busted out triumphant DAMN. cut “GOD.” for the encore, the song choice felt less like one of aspiration than one of confirmation: After a meteoric rise, Lamar now effortlessly occupies the genre’s top tier.

Read on for EW’s highlights from the show.

Lamar has ditched his stellar backing band.

A highlight of Lamar’s shows following 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly was the world-class cast of musicians he brought on tour with him. It makes sense that he’s jettisoned them now that he’s playing less of Butterfly‘s dense, jazzy material, but their absence was still sorely missed — particularly when he dipped into his back catalog.

But he still raps without a net!

Among the more impressive aspects of Lamar’s performance was his decision to, for the most part, not use a backing track of his own vocals as a safety net. That’s all too rare for live hip-hop and especially notable considering the dense, speedy wordiness of Lamar’s verses; in 2017, even many rappers with simpler wordplay have pre-recorded tracks complimenting them at their concerts. Observing him navigate tricky verbal passages like the ones on ‘DNA.’ became a show unto itself.

He’s become a master of stagecraft.

Lamar employed black-and-white, Bruce Conner-style found footage for 2016 headlining sets, like his performance at New York’s Panorama festival. The montages — which synthesized moments including a vintage Bill O’Reilly tirade and former President Barack Obama dancing with Ellen DeGeneres — mirrored the chaos of America’s current political climate.

Though he’s regrettably eased up on that type of overt imagery, Lamar’s DAMN. tour still presents plenty of spectacle. The show opened with explosions and flamethrowers, and throughout the gig, one or two dancers at a time would come on stage for choreographed routines that evoked the martial arts theme Lamar has adopted with his “Kung Fu Kenny” persona during this album cycle. (During opening number “DNA.” Lamar faux battled with one of the dancers.) But visceral video wasn’t entirely absent: During “ELEMENT.” footage on screens rapidly alternated between a colorful barrier reef scene and black-and-white clips of a gory surgery on an eyeball.

Don’t take a bathroom break during the interludes.

To distract the crowd when he went from the main stage to a smaller one in the audience, Lamar created multiple video interludes in the style of his Kung Fu Kenny persona — and the clips are essential. In one, he plays “The Black Turtle,” who engages in Mortal Kombat-style battle with a snake-turned-ninja. The taunt of Lamar’s opponent — “You thought you could save the world?” — emphasized the show’s next track, the America-indicting “XXX.” In another clip, Lamar encounters a black woman who spreads her legs to reveal a heavenly light. “Where the black is darkest, the glow will shine brightest,” the text reads, before Lamar grins on screen and another message flashes: “Kung Fu Kenny found the motherf—in’ glow hole.”

Section.80 has left his repertoire.

Lamar thanked longtime fans multiple times throughout the night, recalling 2010 gigs at the tiny Manhattan club SOBs. But early on, when he said he was throwing out something for fans who’ve been with him longest, he played Good Kid, m.A.A.d City single “Swimming Pools (Drank).” Lamar dipped into his 2012 masterpiece often, but seems to have finally excised 2011’s Section.80 from his set completely — even that album’s moving “A.D.H.D.”

“King Kunta”
“untitled 07 | Levitate”
“untitled 02 | 06.23.2014”
“Mask Off (Remix)”
“Collard Greens”
“Swimming Pools (Drank)”
“Backseat Freestyle”
“Money Trees”
“m.A.A.d. City”
“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”