As Glastonbury 2022 draws to a close, a variation on the rumours that have abounded all weekend about Harry Styles making a secret guest appearance during one of the headline sets starts circulating. This time it involves not the former One Direction star but Eminem, who has apparently been spotted swimming at the exclusive Babington House hotel not far from the Worthy Farm site: evidence, it’s adduced, that he’s set to make a guest appearance during Kendrick Lamar’s performance. It turns out to be no more true than the Harry Styles stuff.
Lamar’s set is tightly choreographed, involving two troupes of dancers, one all-male, the other all-female, their movements shifting from sinuous to militaristic. It’s also beautifully lit, frequently in stark white light, with the screens behind Lamar flashing up sections of his lyrics in vast fonts: The Blacker the Berry plays out with its angriest line – “You hate me don’t you” – towering over him. A huge Parental Guidance sticker appears during DNA. It’s clearly not the sort of thing built to be disrupted by a surprise appearance from Slim Shady.
The performance is lightly sprinkled with tracks from his recent album, Mr Morale and the Big Steppers – it opens with the frantic rhythm track of United in Grief, the screens at the side of the stage literally shaking with the sound of the bass – but draws more heavily on his back catalogue, in roughly chronological order. A trio of tracks from Good Kid MAAD City – Money Trees; The Art of Peer Pressure; Swimming Pools (Drank), the last with two dancers writhing woozily around Lamar – is followed by the big hitters from To Pimp a Butterfly: King Kunta sounds ferocious, the chorus of Alright as potent as ever. The final section draws on 2017’s DAMN.
At the centre of it all, Lamar cuts a magnetic but stone-faced presence, exuding a seriousness befitting a Pulitzer prize winner. Clad in a white shirt and a bejewelled crown of thorns, he greets the sound of the audience cheering with a curt nod and a “right”, and, at moments when the crowd really is making “some motherfucking noise” at his behest, a deadpan “I like where the energy is at”. Whatever else he may be, he certainly isn’t one of those performers who keeps beaming at the Glastonbury audience, shaking his head in disbelief and telling you how grateful he is to be here – although towards the end of the set he spends a surprisingly lengthy period of time just walking backwards and forwards across the stage in silence, staring at the crowd and nodding his head as if taking its sheer size in. But he sounds amazing: as technically gifted a rapper as has emerged in recent years, live he delivers his astonishing flows with a kind of HD clarity.
The show occasionally seems slightly disjointed – the tracks are frequently interspersed with periods when the stage and the screens are just plunged into darkness – but the finale is authentically stunning. Lamar launches into Saviour, one of Mr Morale and the Big Steppers’ vexed responses to his celebrity and acclaim. The bejewelled crown of thorns starts dripping blood down Lamar’s face and spattering his shirt. When the track ends, he keeps rapping a capella, repeating the lines “They judge you, they judged Christ, godspeed for women’s rights” over and over again, his voice gradually growing more hoarse and enraged. Then he throws down his microphone and walks off the stage. It’s an unexpected, short-circuiting end to the weekend, but it’s incredibly powerful and striking.