Kendrick Lamar isn't blessed with a booming voice. His songs aren't full of trap bass and Auto-Tuned vocals, the hallmarks of hip-hop in 2016. He doesn't pad his show out with set pieces, stage props, lighting or lazers. There are no glitter cannons.

All the Compton rapper has is his words. And that's all he needs. At Auckland City Limits, Lamar's headlining slot proved he has so many words it's like he eats thesauruses for breakfast and lunch, and dictionaries for dinner.

In front of the festival's biggest crowd ramming the main stage arena, Lamar kicked it off with For Free?, his dizzying free-style jazz jam from last year's Grammy-winning album To Pimp A Butterfly, spitting his lyrics so fast it was impossible to take them all in.

Across songs like For Sale? and Hood Politics, Lamar spun verbal webs backed by a band freely flowing between upbeat G-funk, smoothed out soul, prog-jazz, occasional rock flourishes and more traditional hip-hop beats.


Sure, the crowd favourites were the highlights from his 2012 album good kid, m.A.A.d city, a mid-set cluster of Backseat Freestyle, Money Trees and Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe, as well as Butterfly's King Kunta and Alright, delivering heaving thrills that had the crowd in unison.

Surprisingly, barely a note was played from this month's surprise release untitled, unmastered. Less surprisingly was Lamar's refusal to revisit his biggest pop hit, a guest appearance on Taylor Swift's Bad Blood remix.

It didn't matter: it's those words, and Lamar's seemingly infinite way of projecting them, that will linger long after ACL's stages have come down. After all the accolades and awards, this was proof-in-the-flesh that Lamar really is a hip-hop magician with tricks that can't be duplicated.

Kendrick Lamar fans at Auckland City Limits (Photograph by Chris Loufte).
Kendrick Lamar fans at Auckland City Limits (Photograph by Chris Loufte).