Live Review: Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington

22 March 2016 | 10:45 am | Stephanie Liew

"These aren't simply live renditions of hip hop tracks, inferior facsimiles of the recorded version - this is how these songs were meant to be heard."

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Boy are we glad we have come early to see Kendrick Lamar's special support act, American jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington. The bearded, golden dashiki-clad genius is responsible for playing sax on Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly and also arranging the strings. For non-jazz-listening ears, the cacophony is at first only impressive from a technical viewpoint, but soon enough Washington and his band — comprising a keyboardist/keytar player, singer/dancer, double bassist and two drummers on high risers — get the whole audience genuinely on side. Highlights include singer Patrice Quinn harmonising with the brass melodies during the phenomenal The Rhythm Changes, a truly thrilling drum duel complete with a hi-hat — stand and all — falling off the riser twice, and Washington's father Rickey coming on stage to lend his flute skills.

When Kendrick Lamar steps out on stage, in front of a guitarist, bassist, keys player and drummer, the now-packed venue explodes. It's apparent there's very little need for Lamar to hype us up; the smallest of gestures — walking in one direction, merely taking a step back and then gazing at the punters — riles us up something silly. Lamar teases us for a while, opening his mouth at the mic before shaking his head. Then he finally speaks. His opening words: "This. Dick. Ain't!" The crowd screams, "FREEEeeeeEEE!" And we're off.

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Lamar sets the tone early with a particularly aggressive rendition of Backstreet Freestyle, the first of many times tonight in which a good kid, m.A.A.d city track will sound even better live than it did on record — an incomprehensible achievement made effortless by Lamar and his band. He builds on this energy, weaving other good kid standouts Swimming Pools (Drank) and Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe throughout the set before the crescendo of m.A.A.d city, during which the arena threatens to collapse with every "Yah! Yah! Yah!"

Lamar and his band navigate the distinct sounds of his two masterpieces, marrying the Compton soundtrack of good kid, m.A.A.d city with the jazz-fusion of To Pimp A Butterfly, remaining faithful to both sounds while simultaneously elevating both. These aren't simply live renditions of hip hop tracks, inferior facsimiles of the recorded version — this is how these songs were meant to be heard.

Every great performer makes the crowd on that particular night feel as though they're the best they've ever played for, but there's something about Lamar's performance to this packed arena crowd that feels so raw and intimate. He doesn't shy away from plumbing the emotional depths that made To Pimp A Butterfly so unique, with renditions of both i, an anthem of self-love and positivity, and u, an exploration of insecurity, depression and suicidal tendencies — the latter leading into a heartfelt speech in which tears mix with sweat on Lamar's face. There are also moments of spontaneity, such as the second time a chant of "We gon' be alright!" breaks out in the crowd and gathers such momentum that Lamar seems genuinely taken aback, eventually bringing forward his staple encore track Alright. To finish a stunning performance, Rod Laver Arena punters are treated to Section 80 single A.D.H.D. as the encore, before Lamar slinks off stage. His band follow, but not before drinking up the applause and taking selfies in front of the moshpit.