The stage was set by an erupting smoke machine, thundering bass and a massive light spectacle, all in preparation for a dynamic, five-foot, six-inch MC in old-school high socks and a voice that seems too powerful to come from such a little body. The second the rapper strutted onto the stage in his grey hoodie and loose shorts, looking like he had just finished an afternoon jog, Kendrick Lamar held the sea of people that filled the Ogden to capacity in his little hand. He spoke his opening bit and then launched into "HiiiPoWeR," and his words were no longer his own, but shared by the entirety of the venue.
The key to Lamar's crowd control, which is nothing short of captivating, is boundless energy coupled with a stylish effortlessness. His verses are so meticulously constructed, so labored over, yet the ease with which he speaks his words is almost flippant. He doesn't ride the rhythm so much as bat it around like a cat toying with a dead mouse -- giving a whole new meaning to killing the beat. Lamar could rap ignorant and still be a powerhouse; his intelligence elevates him to a level few in the rap game can say they've seen.
When he's on, his message is transcendent. With "Fuck Your Ethnicity," Lamar had his mixed-race crowd bellowing in unison, "I don't give a fuck if you black, white, Asian, Hispanic, goddammit; that don't mean shit to me. Fuck your ethnicity." "Y'all be calling it hip-hop. I be calling it hypnotized." But Lamar's not all revolutionary, nor would we want him to be. Along with cerebral joints like "Rigamortis" and "Tammy's Song," Lamar indulges occasionally in "P&P (Pussy and Patron)" or "A Spiteful Chant," but never without his edge of cutting wit and irony.
The recurring theme through the show was Lamar trying to determine whether or not much of the audience had been with him since the beginning, launching into his earlier songs without any introduction, but cutting out his own voice at the best bits, waiting for that song that the crowd couldn't find the words to. That song never came. Other highlights were when Lamar decided to rap without a beat, a feat at which he is particularly skilled because his cadence is practically its own drumline.
To round off the set, Lamar launched into his current mega-hit "Swimming Pools (Drank)," and if there was crowd participation before, he managed to "turn it up a notch" here. We were swimming in vocals from all sides; this was the song everybody had been waiting for. It was like a college frat house the way everyone was yelling "Drank!" So cathartic was this apex of hip-hop energy that many forgot to ask for an encore, and when Lamar walked back on stage with a sheepish grin with half the Ogden's attendees with their backs to him to play "Cartoons & Cereal," it was obvious that it could only be the comedown to an unmatchable high.
To open, Fly Union, a trio with good group chemistry, put on a solid set, highlighted by one member rapping while another beatboxed and the third showcased his MPC skills. Next was Ohio rapper Stalley, who implored the audience to get high with him before bringing out Denver Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard who helped him rap a bit of "BCGMMG." After Stalley came Jay Rock, the first of three Top Dog Entertainment performers (the third being Kendrick), who really began hyping up the crowd with tracks like the stellar "All My Life." Ab-Soul followed Jay Rock with a headline-caliber performance that could have stolen the show from a lesser rapper than Lamar. Ab-Soul is a remarkable lyricist who waxed both revolutionary and psychedelic with "Terrorist Threat" and "Pineal Gland," respectively, equally hair-raising in their vivid immediacy.
Personal Bias: The BET intermissions were unnecessary, with the hypemen spouting ineffectual platitudes over songs we could have listened to at home on the radio. The time could have been much better spent among the opening acts, whose sets at fifteen and twenty minutes felt too short.
Random Detail: Before getting into "Tammy's Song," Lamar singled out some poor girl named Rema near the front, ostensibly because she was talking on her phone. "Everybody say, 'Hi Rema,'" he instructed the crowd. "If Rema had a boyfriend, would she be faithful?" Lamar asked the crowd already knowing the answer, paralleling Rema with the dubious Tammy. Oh, Kendrick, you and your ruses. Poor Rema.
By the Way: The show was the first all-rap BET tour, for whatever that's worth.