Kendrick Lamar is no ordinary artist and consequently his Austin City Limits Festival headline set on Saturday night didn’t follow any sort of predictable structure. His last show in Austin, a comparatively intimate taping for “Austin City Limits,” was a deep dive into his dense jazz exploration, “To Pimp a Butterfly.” This go round, facing a field of thousands, some of whom sprinted the field to stake a place for his set, he took a broader approach.
While black and white footage of prominent black Americans from Oprah to Tupac flashed across the big screen behind the stage, he opened with “Levitate,” a selection from last year’s “Untitled” collection. From there, he front-loaded the set with older faves like “Backseat Freestyle” and “Swimming Pools,” the latter of which played, poignantly, with an image of Prince on the big screen.
After dropping his furious verses over the stutter shot groove on his homie Schoolboy Q’s track “Collard Greens,” he brought out Q himself, who just finished rocking a side stage, to join him on “That Part.”
One of the striking things about Lamar, is how decidedly non-formulaic his music is. Some of his biggest hits, songs like “Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Money Trees,” have a mournful vibe that’s not generally associated with bangers. But these tracks, tucked into the middle of the set, were deliriously received at ACL Fest.
The genuine bangers, songs like “M.A.A.D. City” and “King Kunta” were explosive when amplified across a field of thousands. The former played to a visual collage of of images of violence from scuffles with police to mushroom clouds and Yosemite Sam. The latter was accompanied by historic footage of James Brown calming a crowd in Boston the night after Martin Luther King’s assassination.
The set was peppered with several long pauses when the stage went silent as all three screens played a close up image of Lamar’s eyes flitting left and right. Some of these moments were long and awkward. Some audience members took them as cues to hightail it to the exit to beat the shuttle rush.
But hundreds who had streamed out came running back as the opening notes to “Alright,” Lamar’s ode to empowerment that’s become a theme song for the Black Lives Matter movement, began. They were right to return. At this moment in time, standing in a field of thousands shouting “We Gon’ Be Alright” felt emotionally and spiritually profound.
The climatic rush of “Alright” seemed like the natural finale, but Lamar decided instead to reach back and reward his early fans. He closed the set with the 2011 track “A.D.H.D.” followed by a snippet of “Every (expletive) is a Star” as an outro.
It was an odd way to go, but he left with a promise.
“I will be back,” he said.