Photography by Philip Cosores
Headlining Coachella is a dicey proposition, even for the world’s biggest music superstars. Drake learned the hard way back in 2015 that having an arsenal of anthems and the cache of being the most popular rapper of the moment was not nearly enough to pull of the main stage headlining slot.
The timing couldn’t have been better for this year’s Sunday closer; Kendrick Lamar is at the center of hip-hop right now, having just released his challenging and ambitious new album, DAMN., just two days prior to his Sunday night Coachella stage performance. Fans and hip-hop conspiracy theorists have even been spinning convoluted hypotheses as to why a second Lamar full-length is imminent.
The stakes of Lamar’s Coachella were heightened considerably with the whole thing being live-streamed, with fans across the country glued to their devices to see what exactly K-Dot had to offer. Would he pull a Drake, fall flat and generate another wave of hot takes that hip-hop just isn’t capable of headlining Coachella? Or would the local native made good rise to the occasion and show exactly why his legion of devotees have already christened him as the GOAT?
It’s ironic then that just two years after Drake’s headlining stumble, it would be the 6 God’s alleged arch-rival himself, Kendrick Lamar, who would make the absolute most of that hallowed Coachella set time and place, and propel himself among the upper echelon of the greatest to ever do it, regardless of genre, with a stunning and inspired performance.
The show opened with a short film detailing “The Legend of Kung Fu Kenny”, a sendup of classic martial arts movies of the ‘70s, with Lamar in the starring role as a master of the turtle style of kung fu. The video flipped to the FOX News clip sampled on the intro to DAMN. before Lamar rushed onstage dressed in an all-black martial arts ensemble to unleash one of the new album’s standout tracks, “DNA”, as the huge crowd surged towards the stage. He kept the new album vibes going with “Element”, but before the show turned into a DAMN. showcase, he reached back to the Grammy-winning To Pimp a Butterfly for “King Kunta”, followed by “Untitled 07” and “Untitled 02” from Untitled Unmastered.
Part of any successful Coachella headlining set is a few surprises and special guests, and Lamar didn’t disappoint. First up was Travis Scott, who showed up for “Goosebumps”, taken from his Birds in the Trap Sing Brian McKnight album and features Lamar, much to the delight of the massive main stage audience.
Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City fans were blessed with a run through “Swimming Pools”, “Backseat Freestyle”, and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” before the rapper introduced his next special guest: fellow TDE artist Schoolboy Q, who used the opportunity to perform “That Part (Remix)”.
Mixing older tracks (“Money Trees”, “M.A.A.D. City”) with new (“LUST.”, “XXX.”, “PRIDE.”), Lamar still found time to introduce yet another surprise, this time in the form of Future, who turned it up with “Mask Off”. It was a sly move to include all three of Coachella 2017’s other highest billed rappers in his set, a trinity that felt particularly holy on Easter Sunday.
While the song selection and musical performances were stellar, the overall production elevated the whole thing to an entirely higher level. There were multiple installments of the “Kung Fu Kenny” movie shorts, the giant video screens magnified the onstage action for people in the back, and “LUST.” found Lamar inside an illuminated cube out in the center of the field, which he climbed on top of for “Money Trees”, surrounded by fans.
After a celebratory version of “Alright”, Lamar ended the set with a run through more new songs, charging up the party atmosphere in the field with his latest single, “HUMBLE.”, before turning down for the last song of the night, “LOVE.”
It was a masterful showing for Lamar, more than delivering on any pre-show hype with a performance that hit all of the necessary marks for a stellar Coachella headlining set: crowd-pleasing yet artistic, a visual spectacle still full of substance and meaning. Future headliners would do well to study it and take notes before embarking on the arduous climb to Coachella’s ultimate and elusive peak.
Kung-Fu Kenny Part I:
untitled 07 | 2014 – 2016
Untitled 02 | 06.23.2014.
goosebumps (with Travis Scott)
Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe (Remix)
THat Part (with ScHoolboy Q)
Kung-Fu Kenny Part II:
m.A.A.d city (Part 1)
Mask Off (with Future)
Kung-Fu Kenny Part III:
Every Nigger Is a Star (Boris Gardiner song)