ACL Fest: Kendrick Lamar’s a king, but his band’s not working

Dude, it’s OK to perform a rap concert. Don’t kill my vibe.

There just isn’t any hiding from Kendrick Lamar. After four years of consistent stops in Austin, the Southern California rapper seized the Samsung stage Saturday at ACL with heart-stopping urgency.

Kendrick Lamar performs on the second weekend of the 2016 Austin City Limits Festival at Zilker Park Oct. 8. 10/08/16 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Kendrick Lamar performs on the second weekend of the 2016 Austin City Limits Festival at Zilker Park Oct. 8. 10/08/16 Tom McCarthy Jr. for AMERICAN-STATESMAN

This is ski mask music for grumpy locals who remember the Church’s Chicken on Oltorf and South First before it was lost forever to gentrification. So why the hell is there a guitar breakdown smeared on my “M.A.A.D City?”

Eminem (2014) was a nostalgic retread by the time he landed at Samsung. Drake (2015) was a pop man dispensing anthemic smiles. Kanye West (2011) was jaw-dropping theater. Despite the useless backing band there to sugar-coat the product for live music purists, this was an urgent phantom menace so razor-sharp you ultimately forgive the jammy interludes that rendered last year’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” a deferential, overly dense brick. It left all the tricky musical choices in the hands of legends like George Clinton, and the thing lost its heart.

Here it meant that perfect bangers like “Money Trees” lacked tempo and were burdened by sappy drum fills and guitar noodling. This is a guy who took Imagine Dragons seriously and collaborated with them at the Grammys, after all.

But Lamar is a hulking talent still finding his voice. He shouts out individual audience members like Jay Z in 2003; he’ll punctuate audience banter with “don’t you agree?” like Kanye circa “Late Registration.” He leans on the “left side” versus “right side” stage gimmicks perfected by Method Man and Redman in the late ’90s.

In between, turbo thoughts and an act pinned to 2016 in ways we’ll always remember.

Lamar emerged to footage of Ron Artest’s 2004 NBA brawl. If you’ll recall, Artest and his Indiana Pacers were playing on the road in Detroit; after a fan antagonized him, he snapped and swung. The footage was emblematic of the exhausting pleasantries that come with having to nod through a Chainsmokers set before this. Lamar tapped into the crowd’s stress, anxiety, and anger for a booming release.

With “Butterfly” tracks like “King Kunta” already built on live grooves, Lamar put it together. It’s clear he’s interested in expanding the toolkit and experimenting, and the next record may melt faces.

His stage screens stuck to a black-and-white filter throughout the 90-minute set. Every shot of the audience rendered a sea of clumped together, gray beings who lost their minds when the hook to “Alright” switched on. It was as unified a front as you’ll ever see in Zilker Park.

Lamar’s music is introverted and pensive, and rap’s best writer took ACL into the cave. Next time though, let’s remember that crispy six-strings licks aren’t a prerequisite to being a rock star.

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