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Review: Kendrick Lamar was a superstar in life size at Staples Center

Kendrick Lamar, seen performing at April's Coachella festival, played Staples Center on Sunday night.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Pop Music Critic

“LOOK DOWN,” the words on the video screen instructed in stark all-caps — and sure enough, that was where you found Kendrick Lamar on Sunday night, crouched onstage at Staples Center as he performed his song “DNA” to start a run of three hometown concerts.

A connoisseur’s favorite since he began releasing albums in 2011, the fiercely talented Compton rapper graduated to pop superstardom with the release of this year’s “Damn,” his fourth studio set and, so far, the second-biggest seller of 2017, according to Nielsen Music. In April, two days after the record came out, Lamar headlined the massive Coachella festival in Indio, leading tens of thousands of devoted fans to shout along with songs they’d only just learned.

“Damn” reflects Lamar’s ascent; it’s largely about the temptations and the responsibilities of fame. It’s also about rising high enough to become a target for fresh enemies: On the album, “DNA” is preceded by the sound of several Fox News hosts denouncing Lamar’s 2015 hit “Alright,” which was adopted as an unofficial anthem by the Black Lives Matter movement.

But if the full house at Staples Center clearly demonstrated Lamar’s stature — he’s about halfway through a North American arena tour, and his audience Sunday included Beyoncé — the show seemed designed to make him look small. (He’s scheduled to perform again Tuesday and Wednesday.)

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For most of his 85-minute set, Lamar roamed the wide, empty stage by himself, accompanied by an expert live band hidden from view. And when that video screen wasn’t directing your eye to the guy keeping himself low to the ground, it was flashing dramatic images from Lamar’s music videos — a barking dog, shirtless men in a brawl — that further diminished his size in comparison.

The idea was that Lamar, a savvy inheritor of L.A.’s gangsta-rap tradition, hasn’t outgrown his connections to the people and the neighborhoods that made him — especially, he said at one point, the five early adopters who’d come out years ago for one of his first gigs at the now-shuttered Key Club.

“We built this from the ground up,” he noted with obvious pride.

Yet Lamar was also using this relatively minimalist approach to set himself apart from his peers at the top of the hip-hop food chain; the show’s scrappy community spirit felt like a pointed response to the kind of production spectacle many rappers employ to illustrate their supremacy.

How could “LOOK DOWN,” for instance, not make you think of Travis Scott, the young Houston MC who opened Sunday’s concert with a performance he spent astride a giant mechanical bird? (To see pictures of the bird, or of the matching yellow pants and jacket Lamar wore, you’ll have to turn to social media, as the headliner’s representatives declined The Times’ request to photograph the show — one way he’s exercising a superstar’s control over his image.)

And the only reason Lamar’s radical act of self-shrinkage works of course is because of the feeling and intensity he brings to the stripped-down presentation. He knows how rare his skills are, which is why he can showcase them as plainly as he did in “Damn” cuts like “DNA” and “Element” and “Humble,” the last of which he performed twice: first with the hearty assistance of the audience, then a second time on his own, ripping ferociously through the song’s words about being fed up with artifice.

For “Lust,” Lamar moved to a secondary stage on the venue’s floor and described the deadening nature of excess from the inside of what resembled a cage with light-up bars.

Beyond the new stuff, he reached back for some of his older tunes, including an exuberant “Alright” and “King Kunta,” both from 2015’s dense “To Pimp a Butterfly,” and “… Don’t Kill My Vibe,” the slinky slow-motion hit that helped spark his mainstream success as a protege of the hip-hop kingmaker Dr. Dre.

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In this room full of true believers, the track inevitably became a rowdy singalong. Yet Lamar’s band maintained the song’s seductive textures, just as the players did late in the show for “Love,” a luscious statement of romantic devotion from “Damn” in which Lamar raps as tenderly as he ever has.

Having proved that a superstar can stay life-sized, he was showing he’s also hard enough to go soft.

mikael.wood@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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