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On the TD Garden stage, Kendrick Lamar wrestles with love, fame, and himself

Kendrick Lamar onstage in Dallas earlier in his "Big Steppers" tour, which came to TD Garden Wednesday night.GREG NOIRE

Kendrick Lamar’s “Big Steppers” tour begins with a mystery — where is the crown of thorns the rapper wears on his recent album cover, and why has he donned Michael Jackson’s signature sequin glove? While his show at TD Garden Wednesday night never offered an explicit answer, the artist’s feelings on love, performance, and the conditional nature of public adoration were clear, if you listened.

Playing an upright piano and garbed in a funereal oversized black suit, Lamar set the mood for his first visit to Boston in five years with the “Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers” opener “United In Grief,” the first salvo in an evening dedicated to finding peace from the traumas that can haunt generations. As if to emphasize the song’s refrain, “I grieve different,” Lamar performed the song with a Muppet-like replica of himself — a prop that reflected a confrontation with his interior life.


Matching a pyrotechnics display, the first audience eruption of the evening came from Lamar’s energized performance of “N95.” His cadre of dancers looked like a family dressed for church. Following up with “Worldwide Steppers,” Lamar’s silhouette was projected onto long drapes, giving the faint impression of a massive casket. The song, a confession of personal failings, was a clever lead-in to the boastful “good kid mAAD city” cut “Backseat Freestyle.”

The haunting new track “Rich Spirit” impressed, as the audience joined to deliver the chorus. When Lamar unleashed “Humble,” it was a reminder that he’s in a league of his own when it comes to bringing substance to tracks that earn radio play. The therapist’s chair he performed from for “Father Time” was apropos for an artist who grapples with acute anxiety. “Swimming Pools” felt like Lamar reckoning with the lows of his journey. Transitioning to “Purple Hearts,” the chorus of “Shut the (expletive) up when you hear love talking” underscored his ethos — do things for love, or don’t do them at all.


Older cuts punctuated new material, with Lamar drawing primarily from 2017′s “DAMN,” with favorites like “ELEMENT,” “LUST,” “DNA,” “LOYALTY,” and “LOVE.” The show’s central set piece, a cube that captures Lamar, surrounded by people in hazmat suits, and lifts toward the rafters, evoked the COVID quarantine, but it could have stood for any kind of prison.

Kendrick Lamar onstage at the kickoff of his "Big Steppers" tour last month.Courtesy of pgLang

You get the sense that being vulnerable on the worldwide stage has taxed Lamar, in a society that confuses attention for love. Those feelings suffuse “Mirror,” which he performed from his elevated station, and were echoed in “Crown” — that he “can’t please everybody” and that “love’s going to get you killed.” We learn why Lamar has forgone his crown — he no longer wishes to be a king, just an example of good, and of hope.

Lamar closed his Garden set with “Savior,” where he challenged his audience to “Show me you real, show me that you bleed.” It made for an extraordinary spectacle, one that meditates on the simmering anxieties of today before Lamar poses his ultimate question: “Are you happy for me?”

With those words adorning the tour merchandise, the question is a loaded one: Is our joy for others, or for ourselves? It’s a concern that hung in the air even as the crowd spilled onto Causeway Street, where street-side preachers could be heard spreading the gospel. Perhaps that’s why Lamar stubbornly sported his shimmering one glove throughout the evening. It’s shorthand — for one love.



At TD Garden, Wednesday