“All my life I want money and power,” Kendrick Lamar raps in his song “Backseat Freestyle,” and less than three months after the release of his major-label debut, the Compton MC appears to be enjoying plenty of both.
A deft reimagining of West Coast gangsta rap, Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city” – which entered Billboard’s album chart at No. 2 in October, behind only Taylor Swift’s “Red” -- is cropping up near the top of countless best-of-2012 lists, including those of Rolling Stone, SPIN and the Los Angeles Times. And when the rapper emerged onstage Friday night at the Gibson Amphitheatre, he did so wearing crisp black slim-fit jeans and a pair of blindingly white high-top sneakers – spending-spree threads if any ever were.
Lamar was headlining Cali Christmas, the annual year-end hip-hop survey presented by L.A.’s Power 106 FM. His position on the bill was conspicuous: At 25, he’s more than a decade younger than two of the concert’s other performers, Rick Ross and 2 Chainz, each of whom boasts a bigger presence on mainstream radio.
In part this was a way to acknowledge Lamar’s local-hero status at an event with no shortage of hometown pride. Even Ross, the rotund Miami native, felt compelled to drop a few bars of 2Pac’s “California Love” into his portion of the show. “I love the West Coast for two reasons,” he said: N.W.A. and “all the sexy ladies.”
More than that, though, Lamar’s closing performance felt in keeping with his domination of rap’s idea economy. On “good kid, m.A.A.d city” he vividly depicts the struggle to withstand the dehumanizing effects of violence and deprivation – and of his own appetite for material excess.
That’s a potent narrative in a year as fraught with so-called recovery as 2012, and at Cali Christmas Lamar exercised his newfound power with an ambivalence that echoed the album’s tensions.
“Who been with us since day one?” he asked near the outset of his nearly hourlong set. Then he ran through a handful of cuts from his pre-“good kid” days – “P & P,” “A.D.H.D.,” “Hands on the Wheel” by his Black Hippy cohort Schoolboy Q, who joined Lamar at the Gibson – as though he were testing the crowd’s loyalty.
Later he singled out one audience member he said was using her cellphone while he performed, dedicating the new album’s “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” to her. And during “Backseat Freestyle” he roared “What’s my name?” like a man with total confidence in the answer to come.
Yet Lamar also showed glimmers of what might’ve been discomfort with his newfound fame. At one point he ceded the stage entirely to the Bay Area rapper E-40, who did his song “Function” before bringing out Too Short for a version of their 2010 single “Bitch.” Lamar deflected attention with other guests, as well: Lil Wayne bounded onstage for his recent “No Worries” and J. Cole turned up to deliver “Nobody’s Perfect.” The remaining members of Black Hippy – Jay Rock and Ab-Soul – were there too.
Those cameos, of course, were implying greatness by association; Cole heralded Lamar as one who’d “come through and changed the game.” But the headliner seemed genuinely to want to share his achievement, introducing the closest thing he has to a solo radio hit, “Swimming Pools (Drank),” by inviting his fans to “toast to our success.”
Friday’s other acts seemed far less conflicted about their fortunes.
Tag-teaming with his appealingly antic protégé Meek Mill – with whom he conjured a rapport reminiscent of Ice Cube and Chris Tucker’s in the “Friday” films -- Ross boomed out his majestic, occasionally grotesque accounts of life at the top.
And he came bearing statistics: His album “God Forgives, I Don’t” had just been nominated for a Grammy Award, he said, while “100 Black Coffins,” his menacing contribution to Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” would “possibly” be up for an Academy Award. (Oscar nominations are to be announced in January.)
2 Chainz offered rowdy, strangely earnest strip-club jams such as “Birthday Song” and “Bandz a Make Her Dance,” the recent Juicy J hit on which he guests. The callow Big Sean took a similar approach, minus any semblance of charm.
Even the Weeknd – the mysterious avant-R&B outfit led by the Canadian crooner Abel Tesfaye – stayed relatively straightforward in a set of sleekly mannered love songs that layered delicate falsetto vocals over grinding, digitally enhanced beats: Sade fronting Nine Inch Nails, essentially.
An Internet-born cult concern with burgeoning commercial legs, the Weeknd shared some outlier status with Lamar at Cali Christmas. But only the latter made that unlikely house his home.
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