Kendrick Lamar delivered what was certainly the strangest and most uncompromising Pyramid stage headline set of Glastonbury 2022, and amongst the strangest in the festival’s long history, rivalling Kanye West’s notorious 2015 set for pure bloody-minded determination to create a performance of singular character, that gave no quarter for audience expectation.
It started with what looked like an artfully staged slice of oblique and cryptic modern dance perhaps representing some kind of commuter nightmare and ended with a posed tableau of Lamar as a bleeding Christ figure in a silver crown of thorns, enveloped by his dancers, repeatedly chanting “God speed for women’s rights” in reference to the US abortion controversy. In between, Lamar delivered two hours of fierce, serious, masterfully skillful, blazingly intense rap set to dynamic, atmospheric and occasionally groovy backing tracks, staged with a grandly theatrical yet weirdly spartan style that would probably knock them dead at Ballet Rambert but baffled as much as it impressed a huge, indulgent and curious Glastonbury crowd.
The 35-year-old American rapper is a serious man, one of the most technically skillful, intellectually rigorous, philosophically deep, politically engaged and lyrically audacious rappers of all time, often hailed (not least by himself) as “the greatest rapper alive.” There is no question that Lamar is supremely talented, making hugely impactful albums that address such difficult topics as black male identity, social stigma, historical racism and personal responsibility, setting witty, complex lyrics to a broad musical palette embracing funk, soul, jazz and electro in a challenging fusion of sound. He has sold tens of millions of albums, won 14 Grammy Awards, two American Music Awards, six Billboard Music Awards, 11 MTV Video Music Awards, a Brit Award and a Pulitzer Prize, along with an Academy Award nomination for his work of the Afrocentric soundtrack to Black Panther. Essentially, we are talking about a figure in contemporary hip hop to rival a Bob Dylan, Bob Marley or David Bowie in their cutting-edge prime, so perhaps it would have been asking a lot to expect him to actually look like he gave a damn about fitting his art into the celebratory mood of the last night of a swinging Glastonbury party.
This was a show built for arenas and created for fans who are already deeply engaged with his music, and it gave no quarter to the festival mood. He came, he rapped, he stood in the centre of a mirrored stage surrounded by artily choreographed dancers (women in diaphanous red dresses, men in office style black and white) and he delivered his raps with clarity and intensity, only occasionally pausing to demand that Glastonbury sing or wave their hands in the air. He never smiled, never broke with the script, and clearly hadn’t given the slightest thought to introducing special guests or doing anything to diverge from his particular vision.
And to be fair, the crowd stayed with him, a huge audience that could not possibly have comprised only Kendrick Lamar’s hardcore fans, crowding the hillside to watch this uncompromising set, well aware that they were bearing witness to one of the great artists of our time. It did though, demonstrate some of the limitations of hip hop as a general festival music, compared to the rock and dance bands that dominated Glastonbury for decades. Without live musicians, it is very hard to build momentum, to develop and adjust things according to the mood of the moment. Lithesome grooves like King Kunta, Alright and Humble would get the audience moving, but then just cut off exactly as they do on record. Many rap artists (such as Stormzy who memorably headlined Glastonbury in 2019, and Little Simz, who delivered a fantastic set on the West Holts stage this year) have adapted to these backing track constraints by mixing it up, adding lots of musicians and bringing in other elements of big rock shows. Lamar though just stuck to the script, perhaps justifiably convinced that his art is big enough, smart enough, original enough and just downright special enough to work on its own terms.
And it did, all the way to an ending that left the audience plainly confused. Lamar and his dancers enacted their tableau, a few rather cheap and desultory fireworks went off that bore no relation to the music, and that was it. The audience didn’t roar or cheer with any particular vehemence, but remained in the field for several minutes, apparently confused about whether the set had come to a conclusion or not. It was as if we had all been hypnotized for two hours, then snapped out of it, wondering how we got here. It was certainly committed. It was definitely original. And it was genuinely impressive. But as the closing headline set of a frazzled but fantastic festival … it was utterly bizarre.