Kendrick Lamar Osheaga 2023 review

Photo by Tim Snow

Kendrick Lamar: Big steps to Osheaga 2023

“Every other rap performance I saw at Osheaga this year came with overt demands for crowd energy and solicitations for our attention. And that’s totally okay. It’s fun. It’s proof of engagement. But Kendrick Lamar — who has stated clearly that he is ‘not our saviour’ — attracts human energy magnetically, taking it as a responsibility.”

In 2013, on the heels of his breakthrough album good kid, m.A.A.d city, Kendrick Lamar’s late afternoon appearance on Osheaga’s closing day may have been a blip on the radar for anyone not yet in the know. 

But fans showed up in impressive numbers even then, prompting this Cult MTL report:

“Kendrick received a king’s welcome and delivered in kind, looking enthusiastically sincere when making his pre-requisite promise to return. We only get one Kendrick per generation, and we’ve chosen wisely.”

By Osheaga 2015, his next release, To Pimp a Butterfly, earned deserved praise as an instant classic, a phrase overused by hip hop fandom but valid (and now time-tested) with regard to Kendrick’s sophomore studio project. TPAB would be nominated in seven Grammy categories and take home Best Rap Album in 2016. 

Rolling Stone even bumped Butterfly to the #19 spot on its amended Top 500 Albums of All Time list in 2019. 

Kendrick’s Saturday night, headlining, main stage performance in the summer of 2015 remains a Top 5, all-time Osheaga best-ever (in one reporter’s opinion). 

“There is no way any other show I see this year will even begin to compare, unless it’s Kendrick, again,” a younger me enthused. 

“With a near-perfect mix of classics, deep catalogue cuts and new jawns, we all wanted more, more, more, but we got exactly what we deserved: a command performance by a superstar in his prime.”

With his third studio release, DAMN. the Compton rapper reached higher heights, caught bigger hits and took home more Grammys. DAMN. won Album of the Year and took home a second Best Rap Album statue. It received the Pulitzer Prize For Music. 

Between its April 2017 release and March of the following year, DAMN. sold over a million copies in the United States alone. Two decades ago, that would have earned a golf clap. In today’s world, that’s a staggering number.  

If we began to name the sheer number of producers, songwriters and other studio collaborators Kendrick had worked with by this time, the list would read like a passing of the torch to a new generation of musicians, many of whom are now recognized and admired in their own right. 

King Kendrick didn’t stop by Osheaga’s 2017 edition but instead brought the DAMN. Tour to the Bell Centre later that August.

In a review titled “Kendrick Lamar, Arena Rapper,” Cult MTL said:

“If Montreal fans sadly missed the club-capacity phase of his career, we were rewarded with a performance from an MC whose presence commands an arena entirely with a mix of assuredness in himself and fan loyalty.”

It would be five long years before another Kendrick Lamar project landed. Without getting into the widespread global unrest of that period, suffice it to say that Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers couldn’t have arrived soon enough.

When it did, it surprised and even confounded its audience. Lyrics coloured by an emotionally gripping point of view, from the streets, windows and corners of Compton have been Kendrick’s cachet since day one. This time out, the rapper went a more confessional route. 

Mr. Morale wasn’t as immediately accessible to an audience looking for another hit like “HUMBLE.”, it’s to be understood. 

Nonetheless, we gave it a 10/10, saying:

“(It’s a) 17-song passion play that requires undivided attention in a world that is pulling its people in every direction. Secrets die in the light. Kendrick is the light.”

The Big Steppers World Tour stepped right over this city in 2022.

Kendrick Lamar: Big steps to Osheaga 2023

But at long last, Kendrick Lamar returned to Montreal and Osheaga, headlining Sunday night to close out the sold-out festival for another year. 

If Friday’s big headliner RÜFÜS DU SOL was intended to ease into this year’s festival with a crowd-pleaser, and if Billie Eilish’s star power as a Saturday night headliner perhaps helped reinforce Osheaga’s cred as a destination festival in a post-pandemic world, then perhaps it can be said that Sunday night with Kendrick Lamar added one more simple but absolutely critical element: it brought the raw cool, uncut. 

Just after 9 p.m., and without delay after Fred Again’s dance party next door, K-Dot strolled onto the sparsely decorated River Stage. 

As the jaunty little beat from “The Heart Pt.5” played and a painted canvas unfurled behind him, Kendrick Lamar, with a slow and deliberate stride, big-stepped back into Osheaga.

Without explosions, elaborate intros, flashing lights or drum rolls, he could easily have been walking into his kitchen to get a snack. 

As the massive crowd went wild, its star stood watch. The calibrated mix of emotional vulnerability and ghetto-taught self-preservation that drips from Kendrick Lamar’s music brings him to life in the listener’s imagination. 

On stage, in the flesh, it could be easy to confuse his stoicism for disinterest. But ask yourself: how can an artist, as an icon, mask self-awareness? 

Humility cannot be forced. Kendrick’s quiet, pared-down self-assurance suggests that of a person who cares, and who gives so much of a fuck, despite hip hop culture’s frequently brash embrace of doing just the opposite. 

The only way to wear the crown is to share the crown, to be a sobering ruler in a land of overexcitement, overindulgence and three days worth of wild, joyful abandon in search of a fulfilling outlet. 

I’m not here to debate the song choices, bemoan its relatively short length or speculate about how Sunday night compared to his previous Osheaga outings or match reviews from other festivals this summer. 

Kendrick is my guy. He’s got the songs. He’s got the bangers and the deep cuts. He played a great many of them. The crowd went buck. It was a gorgeous end to another fantastic weekend of music.

Here’s what I will say. Every other rap performance I saw at Osheaga this year came with overt demands for crowd energy and solicitations for our attention. And that’s totally okay. It’s fun. It’s proof of engagement. 

But Kendrick Lamar — who has stated clearly that he is “not our saviour” — attracts human energy magnetically, taking it as a responsibility. 

He doesn’t feed off of it. He just holds it for us. He carries it for us. He loves it for us. And he does so in the hope, I believe, that until we can learn to truly love ourselves, for ourselves, we’re putting our hearts in the right place. 

Casually signing three setlists, giving each one to three elated fans he handpicked in the front row, remarking how these three had embodied the best of the city through the entire show, Kendrick left Osheaga with four simple sentences. 

On one hand, Kendrick was just politely saying goodnight. 

But in a certain light, his final words to the crowd evoke another icon who never claimed to be a saviour but only to carry a message of larger importance as his duty. 

That person told his friends more or less the same thing before the Roman soldiers took him, as legend has it.

“Get home safe. I love you. I will be back. I promise.” ■

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