The final night of this weekend’s Coachella 2017 performances was one for the books. Not only did the hundreds of thousands of people in the desert get to bask in the glory of Kendrick Lamar’s first performance following the release of DAMN., but many also curled up beside their laptops to watch the live stream and contemplate dropping hundreds on a ticket to Weekend two. Lamar’s performance was completely electrifying–and quite the departure from both performances he himself has done in the past, and other hip-hop acts before him.
Since its inception, rap has often gotten the criticism that its live shows are monotonous since they’re essentially just one person and a mic, versus a concert of another genre with an entire band and theatrics to boot. That repetitive reputation has definitely not been the case since at least the turn of the century, thanks to The Hot Boyz and their elaborate entrance via helicopter on the Cash Money/Ruff Ryders Tour. In recent years, the live show has become a much more coveted, meticulous production throughout all categories of music–and hip-hop is at the forefront. Style and presentation have always been crucial to rap’s culture, and the tour aesthetics have become just as important as the clothes.
In all honesty, the exhaustive conversation about the evolution of the live hip hop show could be solely attributed to Kanye West. He is, inarguably, the biggest contributor to not only the stylistic elements of music taking flight but being an exemplary force showing that special attention needs to be given to the presentation of everything. Beginning with Late Orchestration, Mr. West performed the entirety of his second studio album Late Registration with a full orchestra live at Abbey Road Studios. Though rappers had obviously performed with a live band before–like The Roots who are a band themselves and have been performing as such every show since their creation in 1987–the fully orchestrated renditions of album cuts was something completely ‘Ye.
Following that, the world got to experience Kanye’s illustrious first world tour, “The Glow In The Dark” Tour. The shows featured Chicago’s own as the pilot of a spaceship that left him deserted, having to find his way back home by performing hits from his first four albums. The incredible visuals surrounding this show included his glow in the dark accessories, a leveraged stage, smoke-filled airways, and brightly-colored lights. This is notorious for being a huge first step in an effort to put hip hop shows in the same realm as rock arena tours.
Since his not-so-humble beginnings, Yeezy has embarked on a number of tours that defy what was once thought to be the standard for rappers. The Watch The Throne, Yeezus, and Saint Pablo tours were all increasingly extraordinary, with the most recent floating stage concept already being mimicked by acts from other genres. Seeing stage concepts from a hip hop tour being imitated by a pop band is telling of how far the artistry has come–not only are rap shows themselves encompassing a more creative spirit but inspiring those from a genre considered, by definition, to be more popular.
Kendrick’s Coachella performance certainly drew inspiration from past Kanye stage designs, utilizing an exact lighting structure ‘Ye introduced a number of times in performances at festivals like The Meadows and on Saturday Night Live. From K.Dot’s beginning touring with the likes of Drake and Kanye to his own headlining world tours, the attention paid to his presentation has escalated immeasurably. Of course, one has to take into consideration the larger budget that comes with the rise of a headliner, but his craftsmanship has also advanced in accordance with other elements. His new persona–Kung Fu Kenny–engulfed this entire performance with transition videos, kung fu clad dancers, and sensational aesthetics all around. Flawlessly bringing to life tracks from his album released only two days prior, Lamar is not only a prophet in rap but in the future of live shows.
Other rappers are absolutely on board with executing a beautiful live experience for their fans. Tyler, The Creator’s recent tour with A$AP Rocky featured larger than life props including building blocks, a Cherry Bomb doll encasing, and a full representation of a bedroom on stage. Young Money’s 2014 Drake Vs. Lil Wayne Tour was conceptually unique, staging the entire show like a video game where the fans in the audience could text in their votes for the winner. Looking back a bit, Outkast has always been known for their unrivaled music–and their concerts were no different. Draped in outlandish costumes, Big Boi and Andre 3000 knew how to put on a show, and did so even in their reunion in 2014.
It is a beautiful experience being able to watch hip hop and it’s live shows ripen into a whole new animal. Being such a young genre compared to its predecessors, we are privy to a front row seat as those steering the ship learn about themselves, how to make the music, and how to present it to the people. Rappers have been expanding the realm in which they exist since hip-hop’s creation, and their concerts have been right along with them. In the last ten years alone, rap shows have gone from the typical DJ and emcee set up being expected, to holding higher standards for everything from theatrics to visuals. In a world where rappers are fighting to put on the best show, everyone wins.