While hip-hop is one of the world's most dominant musical genres, commercially and culturally, its eminence hasn’t always been reflected in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after-race concert series.
Of the 48 artists who have performed as part of the festivities since the inaugural race, only nine can be classified as rappers — sorry, Post Malone, you don’t make the cut because you sing too much. From that handful, only one has headlined the prestigious race day concert, with Eminem putting on a barnstorming show in 2012.
To be fair, you really can’t blame promoters for this dearth because frankly — with the exception of a notable few — large scale hip-hop shows can be derivative.
Abu Dhabi F1 concert-goers would have experienced this in the 2019 double bill of Future and Gucci Mane, who basically performed a club show in a stadium. Other acts have shown the genre’s full potential, with thrilling sets by Jay-Z in 2013, J Cole in 2017 and last year’s blistering concert by UK grime star Stormzy.
And Kendrick Lamar has now raised the bar, with an explosive show at Etihad Park on Saturday. Simply put, this was the best performance by a hip-hop artist at the Abu Dhabi F1.
It was powerful and kinetic and had just the right amount of production values to keep the non-fan engrossed. But what was more impressive is how uncompromising it was.
Touring on the back of a new album, Mr Morale & The Big Steppers, I wondered how these songs — often dark explorations of childhood trauma — would translate on a festival stage. Lamar solved the challenge by dialling up the drama.
Each track was performed with the cold intensity of a supreme technician. His varied vocal delivery and use of rhymes, cadence and syntax created a rhythm of its own that made heart-wrenching tracks United In Grief and N95 almost operatic in their grandeur.
Die Hard was also a standout from the new album, with Lamar positioning his vocals between passionate spoken word and mournful croon. These bewitching excursions into tumultuous subjects made the arrival of the big anthems all the more impactful.
Nearly 30,000 people bounced along to the marauding piano line of Humble. and the horn-soaked funk of King Kunta. The faithful were also rewarded with a blistering take on m.A.A.d city, Lamar’s breakout track, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.
With all the performative fireworks on display, it is easy to forget how minimal the show actually was.
Lamar took and owned the stage solo. Backed by thematic visuals for each song, from the blue monochrome of DNA. to the fire and sun of King Kunta, each song was given its own moment. Wearing a baseball cap, shirt and boots, he kept his interaction with the crowd minimal, so when the rapper did address “the energy in Abu Dhabi”, the crowd roared.
Ending the set with the propulsive Saviour and a fireworks display, Lamar delivered a hip-hop spectacle worthy of the Abu Dhabi F1 Grand Prix.
After-race concerts continue with Def Leppard taking to the stage at Etihad Park on Sunday.
Access to after-race concerts is exclusive to Abu Dhabi Grand Prix ticket holders. Tickets are available online at www.yasmarinacircuit.com and through the Yas Marina Circuit Call Centre on 800 927 or 02 659 9800