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Kendrick Lamar delivers commanding show at T-Mobile

The song sounds like a record being played backward, a sonic and symbolic rewind.

Upon its completion, hip-hop’s man of the present took a minute to reflect on his past.

Standing atop a small stage in the center of T-Mobile Arena, strings of lights dangling down from its edges like an illuminated weeping willow, Kendrick Lamar traveled down a memory lane strewn with potholes.

“Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve been wanting to share these thoughts with you,” he told the capacity crowd during the Vegas stop of his current “DAMN.” tour.

Lamar acknowledged as much after performing a portion of “LUST.,” his commentary on how success can turn one’s life into a “Groundhog Day” of redundant, empty pleasure seeking. The song unfolds in three verses, the first centered on a man mostly concerned with sex, riches and getting high, the second on a woman pursuing much the same and the third being Lamar himself.

The song is a marvel both lyrically and formally, in the way it’s constructed. To highlight the repetitive nature of the man’s life, Lamar repeats the first verse’s opening line — “Wake up in the mornin’, thinkin’ ’bout money, kick your feet up” — three times in short succession, later altering the line slightly to introduce the female character and then himself.

In doing so, he binds all three together. This makes Lamar seem less like a scold than a man who understands, on a personal level, the pull of that which he’s critiquing, giving his message far more resonance than mere finger wagging would.

Hip-hop has become increasingly polarized between money-minded, pill-popping Epicurean types who elevate the sensate pleasures above all — those are the ones you find ensconced at the top of the charts these days, for the most part — and guys like, say, J. Cole, who strives to be the music’s conscience and practically self-flagellates himself for past indulgences in shallower impulses.

Lamar dominates the vast middle ground between the two and thus owns hip-hop’s prime real estate.

His lyrics are among the most searching in hip-hop, full of thoughts that end in question marks when plenty of other rappers speak only in declarative sentences. Lamar does the same often enough — he’s got a quick trigger finger when it comes to putting other rappers on blast if they dare to deem themselves his peers — but he also directs some of his most cutting observations at himself.

“Lovin’ me is complicated,” he acknowledged on “Alright,” elaborating as to why this is the case earlier in the evening during “PRIDE.”

“Now, in a perfect world, I probably won’t be insensitive / Cold as December, but never remember what winter did / I wouldn’t blame you for mistakes I made or the bed I laid / Seems like I point the finger just to make a point nowadays.”

Lamar gesticulated aplenty on Saturday night, his hands sometimes moving as fast as his tongue. His performance bore a kung-fu motif, from the vintage-looking karate flick interludes where Lamar warred with various combatants en route to enlightenment, to the sword-bearing ninjas who occasionally joined him onstage, beginning with a show-opening “DNA.”

It’s easy to discern why, as an MC, Lamar might feel some affinity for the martial arts: It’s a discipline where the mental and the physical are as intertwined as the threads in a knot of rope. Lamar has abundant physical gifts: Whether detonating funk atom bomb “King Kunta” or reciting his speed-of-sound rhymes on the remix of Future’s “Mask Off,” he’s a technician’s technician on the mic.

But he’s also among the music’s most thoughtful presences, perhaps the truest and most direct descendant of one of his idols, Tupac Shakur, in terms of mixing intellect and emotion with toughness and commercial appeal, a position that Lamar himself acknowledges on his contributions to Future’s aforementioned smash hit.

“How y’all let a conscious (rapper) go commercial / While only makin’ conscious albums? / How y’all let the braids on TV? / How y’all let the hood at the table? / Now y’all don’t even know how to rate him.”

That last line’s a little dubious: Plenty of fans and critics alike would argue that Lamar is the greatest MC in the game right now, and he knows it.

Lamar takes this position seriously, and he carried himself like it on Saturday, giving himself fully to the heart-palpitating urgency of the one-two punch of “XXX.” and “m.A.A.d city,” then changing pace completely during the reflective couplet of “PRIDE.” and “LOVE.,” which followed.

The rapt audience seemed to realize they were witnessing something special, attempting to reciprocate the energy that Lamar exuded — a tall order.

But during “HUMBLE.,” they stood on their feet and came close, singing the song in unison.

“Sit down, be humble,” they bellowed when the chorus came around.

Few seats were taken.

Contact Jason Bracelin at jbracelin@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0476. Follow @JasonBracelin on Twitter.

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