Kendrick Lamar took a long look out at the audience assembled before him on Tuesday night at the Fox Theater in Oakland. Then he waited.
And then he waited some more, soaking up the applause from the capacity crowd before uttering his first words into the microphone.
He was in no rush. And why would he be? It’s his moment and he wants to make it last.
Finally, the 28-year-old Compton rapper got down to business, leading his four-piece backing band into a priceless “For Free?” The music bounced with jazz chops and raw hip-hop power, a formula that has made Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” one of the best-reviewed albums of 2015.
Lamar is so hot right now that he certainly could’ve played a much bigger spot that the 2,800-capacity Fox, which he quickly sold out. It’s easy to speculate that he could’ve packed the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco or one of our major arenas. And he’ll likely get the chance to try next time he comes through town.
For now, however, it was really good to see him in a theater, which was, no doubt, the ideal spot to witness the jazzy, intense “Butterfly” material.
“It’s been a long time since I got this up and personal with you.” Lamar told the crowd.
Indeed, the previous time Lamar played in Northern California was at the mammoth Outside Lands music festival in Golden Gate Park. In that setting, Lamar delivered an anthem-rich outing that thrilled tens of thousands of fans.
This time around, the crowd was smaller — but the impact was just as great.
Lamar and his quartet sounded terrific as they mostly mixed and matched tunes from “Butterfly” and the prior effort, 2012’s “good kid, m.A.A.d city.” The star’s heart was with the new album — Lamar’s third overall — but the crowd was more interested in getting “m.A.A.d,” reacting in feverish form as the crew re-created the mighty “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and “Backseat Freestyle.”
The set was basically bare-bones, except for a single sign posted onstage, pleading for “Pimps Only.” Yet, who needs bells and whistles when you’ve got superstar stage presence? Certainly not Lamar, who glistens with charisma under the bright lights.
Lamar was slicing and dicing in grand style during the set, dishing out his syllables with care and confidence. He showed a good deal of versatility as a vocalist, running like the Flash through some segments, only to slow down in others so that the nuances could rise to the top.
The crowd was in the palm of his hand throughout the 90-minute show — dancing and singing along as Lamar underscored why he’s considered one of the genre’s true young lions. He’d roar loudly as the concert approached the end of the main set with “King Kunta,” the Isley Brothers-flavored “I” and other favorites.