It was a warning that doubled as an invitation, delivered by a man out to make up for lost time the best way that he could: by rendering the past indivisible from the present.
“Brace yourself,” Kendrick Lamar commanded in song, dressed in all white and a matching hat that looked like it had been crocheted from a cloud. “I’ll take you on a trip down memory lane.”
Said lane became an expressway of aspiration and reflection, passion and poise, tongue-knotting rhymes and concussive funk Friday as Lamar brought the opening night of the Day N Vegas music festival to a climactic, knock-you-on-your-heels close at the Las Vegas Festival Grounds.
It was Lamar’s first performance in two years — “365 days, times two, since I seen you,” he chimed at one point — and his only show scheduled for 2021.
In other words, it was an event — and it lived up to the billing.
In a sweeping, 90-minute show, Lamar divided his set into a quartet of suites — plus an encore, where he was joined by ascending, Vegas-born rapper Baby Keem — each dedicated to one of his four albums, beginning with his 2011 debut, “Section.80,” where Lamar aired some songs that he hadn’t played live in nearly a decade — or, in the case of “Chapter Ten,” ever at all.
From there came selections from Lamar’s 2012 breakout sophomore record, “good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” where he established himself as the superego of Compton-born, West Coast hip-hop. He then delved into the left-field funk of “To Pimp a Butterfly,” before concluding with songs from the equally scalding and sentimental “DAMN.”
During his set, Lamar was joined by a phalanx of male dancers in maroon suits, a clutch of ballerinas and a few children who added a theatrical dimension to what felt like a career-defining performance.
“Tryin’ to be a (expletive) legend,” he thundered/explained on “HiiiPoWeR.”
He’s gettin’ there.
Lamar’s standout showing wasn’t the only thing that lent the evening the air of a significant occasion: It was also the first large-scale hip-hop event since the recent tragedy at the Astroworld festival in Houston, which left nine fans dead and hundreds injured.
Some performers alluded to the horrific turn of events from the previous weekend.
“Tonight, turn to the person on your left and say, ‘I’ve got your back,’” instructed rapper IDK during his headlining set at the Dean Tent, enjoining audience members to look out for one another. “Turn to person on your on right and say, ‘I’ve got your back.’”
While the crowd was thick — especially near the main stage — and navigating the masses could be slow going at times, it was nothing out of the ordinary for a festival of this size, nor did there seem to be any of the crowd-surging issues that plagued Astroworld.
The second installment of Day N Vegas, which debuted in 2019 before taking 2020 off because of the pandemic, seemed even bigger than the first, which drew a sold-out crowd of 60,000 over three days.
Like its predecessor, the event is focused on the music more than outsize production values or creating an immersive experience like other tentpole Vegas music fests such as the EDM-centered Electric Daisy Carnival or the art-enhanced Life is Beautiful.
Here, tens of thousands of fans roamed a bare-bones, asphalt-covered landscape of merch booths and food stands where Bling Bling Dumplings, chicken and waffles, and Cajun eats were all on the menu.
The sonics were similarly diverse, from the blood-warming R&B of Umi, sung into a foliage-adorned mic stand at the Dean Tent, to the bullhorn-voiced Roddy Ricch, who came slathered in more gold than a pharaoh’s casket during his time on the Frank Stage.
For indie hip-hop devotees, there was the old-school-soul-excavating sounds of producer Madlib, who sipped champagne while surveying his voluminous discography at the Dean Tent, playing cuts ranging from Blackstar to MacLib, his collaboration with late rapper Mac Miller.
Speaking of Miller, he was also acknowledged during an endearingly manic performance by bass wunderkind Thundercat at the Dean Tent, where he paid tribute to his fallen friend — “His life changed my life, and I’m sure it changed yours, too. It still hurts” — in addition to masked rhymer MF Doom, who died in October 2020, and jazz great Chick Corea, who died in February.
It was a moment indicative of Thundercat’s oeuvre itself: sweet and sentimental with a childlike precociousness at times — he has a couple of tunes about the joys of being a cat — buffered with prodigious musical chops, his fingers traversing the fretboard like kids splashing down a Slip ’n Slide.
Was Day N Vegas ready for a 60-minute prog-jazz odyssey?
“This has been a wild couple of years,” Thundercat noted midway through his performance, taking everything in with a grin as big as the stage he was performing upon.
And then he returned to the business at hand: creating music that was wilder still.
At the same time Thundercat was doing his thing, YG was bringing his chest-pounding bluster to the Frank Stage.
Claiming to be in Vegas out on bail, he encapsulated the vibe of the night, and the weekend ahead, at once.
“I just wanna party,” he bellowed. “I don’t wanna hurt nobody.”
Contact Jason Bracelin at email@example.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @jbracelin76 on Instagram.