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Kendrick Lamar’s latest efforts crystallize with classics at Dallas ‘Big Steppers’ show

Lamar fused deep introspection off his new album with evolved versions of his hits in his first stop in Dallas in five years.

Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar performs at American Airlines Center in Dallas as part of his “The Big Steppers Tour” on Saturday, July 23, 2022.(GREG NOIRE)

By Eric Diep

Only Kendrick Lamar can hold a live therapy session while on tour. For Saturday night’s performance at American Airlines Center on The Big Steppers Tour, a calming voice served as a guide.

A therapist’s voice could be heard at various points during Lamar’s nearly two-hour performance, keeping his ego in check and reminding him who he is: a humbled rap superstar with flaws just like the rest of us. But with great power comes great responsibility. Since reemerging in hip-hop after going through something for 1,855 days, as noted on “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” his latest album, Lamar’s return has been seismic. If this year’s Super Bowl performance wasn’t enough of a teaser, the Pulitzer Prize and 14-time Grammy Award winner’s shows are meant to get dramatically better.

In a nod to the pandemic, the 35-year-old rapper was instructed by the therapist’s voice to take a staged COVID-19 test later in the show, trapping himself in a plastic box that was lowered onto him and a few individuals in hazmat suits. After he performed his protest anthem “Alright,” the voice asked the crowd while the energy was still high, “Dallas, are you entertained?”

Delivering both entertainment and spiritual enlightenment through big singles from his thought-provoking catalog, Lamar acknowledged the five-year gap since he last performed in Dallas on the Damn Tour. In the world of “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers,” Lamar’s songs are elevated creatively, using visual storytelling elements through lights, shadows and step dance for a stimulating experience.

Mr. Morale is Lamar’s newest alias, adding to K. Dot, Kung Fu Kenny and King Kendrick. In this artistic form, Lamar spends an hour and 13 minutes of “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” examining himself from within. He’s more open about mental health and his therapy, making connections to his past and how it affects his current behavior. He’s trying to be held accountable for his mistakes, addressing his negative patterns and how to learn from them. He has been regarded as rap’s savior by fans, but the messaging on his tour merch (“Not your savior,” “Are you happy for me?”) broadcasts a man who himself is looking for salvation through his art.

Many of the songs that address these shortcomings were performed live for the first time for the Dallas crowd, in particular, “Rich Spirit,” “Father Time,” “We Cry Together,” “Purple Hearts,” “Mirror,” “Auntie Diaries” and “Savior.” Despite taking early criticism for their complex ideas and for being a dense listen, they blended well with his known hits. It’s as if Lamar already had the foresight to be honest about his life, knowing the risk would pay off.

The look of Mr. Morale was intensely powerful — an all-black suit, coordinating jewelry, and a sparkly sequined glove. Lamar has not confirmed the inspiration for his outfit, but the late Michael Jackson immediately jumps out. Lamar and his dancers — the men wearing all-black suits, the women wearing all white — moving authoritatively to some of his songs, brought them new meaning. It felt harder, maybe militant at times. The day one Kendrick fans in the building likely had heard these songs a dozen times before, but they threaded together in ways not seen in recent memory.

The focus of a Kendrick Lamar show has always been his lyrical skill and whether it’s prodigious enough. Compared with Drake and J. Cole, the other “Big 3″ rappers he’s often stacked against, Kendrick live hasn’t changed much in that aspect: He’s going to rap well with unmatched showmanship even if he has props. On Saturday, he introduced new flows on “N95″ — the video that shows off scenes from Fort Worth — and a ventriloquist’s dummy that looked like a mini-Mr. Morale, with both rapping impressively at the same time. Chicago legend Twista and Lamar have a shared interest, it seems.

The high points were undoubtedly Lamar’s classic songs, which included “HUMBLE.,” “DNA.,” “ELEMENT.,” “Backseat Freestyle” and “Money Trees,” which turns a decade old later this year. It’s natural for fans to gravitate toward what they already know. “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” has been out for only three months. With an album such as this, it’s going to take time for the songs to settle into our consciousness.

Artists Tanna Leone and Baby Keem of Lamar’s creative collective pgLang returned to the stage for Lamar’s final songs. Lamar picked his spots wisely, performing with Keem “Family Ties” instead of “Range Brothers,” which Keem did solo during his opening set. Leone and Lamar put on a primal performance of “Mr. Morale” before K. Dot headed back to the piano, where he started the show.

A quick scan of American Airlines Center showed many of his fans wearing the night’s most popular purchase, a white T-shirt that said, “Are you happy for me?” As “Savior” took us to the end of the evening just before 11 p.m., you couldn’t help but think about Lamar’s mental wellness after everything that’s been said on his album. Can we be happy for him?

He may not want to be our savior, but only he can judge his own happiness. No matter how loud the Kendrick chants were or the number of lyrics rapped back to him Saturday, it’s up to him to decide if this was a cathartic release of emotions or another opportunity to take a few steps back once it’s all over, removing himself from the spotlight to disconnect and make us call for his brilliance again. Rap will continue to evolve without Kendrick. It’s just better when he’s actively involved and raising the bar.

“Dallas, I love you all,” he said, smiling, as he waved goodbye.

Correction, July 24 at 11 a.m.: A previous version of this article misstated the song that Leone and Lamar performed together near the end of the show. It was “Mr. Morale,” not “Savior.”

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