If you’re a fan of storytelling in music, University at Buffalo’s Alumni Arena has been the place to be this month. A mere nine days after playing host to Bob Dylan’s mortality-obsessed gentleman cowboy revue, the college’s annual Spring Fest brought in another exceptional raconteur – Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar. The artist’s 2012 concept record, “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City,” is a poignant, narcotic, autobiographical tale of temptation in America, a first-person “Desolation Row.”
When Lamar took the stage, he had several things working against him.
The room, for one. On a good day, Alumni Arena would not be an audiophile’s venue of choice, and on Sunday evening, the place was packed with college students nearing the end of a semester, which made for an echo chamber that threatened to render any lyric or between-song remark indecipherable.
Second, Lamar was preceded by the aggressively loud electro-dance stylings of Krewella, a Chicago duo that matched throttling low-end noises with siren-like high-end noises, creating a form of unholy uber-noise that I just couldn’t process. The crowd adored every second of this, so I’ll shut up.
Lamar’s performance largely overcame these obstacles, in ways that only a talented rap act could.
“Is anybody trying to be successful on this side?” he asked to different sections of the crowd before launching into “Backseat Freestyle,” a rambunctiously addictive track from “M.A.A.D City” that should be played anytime you get a raise.
The song’s production is stripped to the bone – just an insistent bass drum, some clattering, compressed snares and Lamar. It cut through the maelstrom of arena noise, the simple drum machine patches bolstering the rapper’s swagger-drenched verses, his playfully phrased desires for money and power entertaining thousands of people who are about to enter a less-than-welcoming job market.
When the set list called for songs with more intricate beats – like the delicate Janet Jackson sample in “Poetic Justice” or the warm, jazz-fusion loop of “HiiiPower” – their nuances were only intermittently audible. But as long as we heard that bass drum and could plug into the artist’s commanding syncopation, we lost little of the emotion. The American dream was still laid bare with poise and attitude on “Money Trees.” “Hol’ Up” still sounded like a diary entry.
I saw four of the six groups that played Spring Fest (deadline constraints prevented me from catching headliner, Steve Aoki), and while Bad Rabbits got my attention with its Fishbone-ish brand of falsetto funk and hard rock, and Krewella didn’t have any problems getting themselves heard, Lamar was the only artist to really transcend it all.
Of course, having the best songs and the most talent had something to do with that. But it also had something to do with genre. Right now, I feel like none is simpler, more utilitarian, more lopsidedly human than hip-hop.
Sunday, Kendrick Lamar made himself heard through the din – not by turning it to 11, but by putting all his focus on stringing words together in just such a way. Mr. Dylan would have been proud.