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Kendrick Lamar Brought a Rare Dose of Social Consciousness to Art Basel Week

There are three things that are absolute in life: death, taxes, and exclusive events during Art Basel week. The latest edition of Basel parties brought arguably the most talented and highly coveted rapper in music to South Florida: Kendrick Lamar.

As part of the American Express event Music Meets Art, Lamar performed in an intimate setting that delivered a full-on, 75-minute audio assault that reverberated throughout the Faena Art Dome last week.

Hundreds of fans packed close to the stage in the Dome, which featured a rotating art design that made it feel that the room was actually spinning (depending on how many drinks you'd knocked back). Like many exclusive Basel shows that aren’t really traditional concerts — with only about 400 people in the room — it was hard to guess what to expect from Lamar.

But one of the most energetic and bombastic musicians out there set the tone immediately once the lights dimmed. Backed by a full band, Lamar tore through his repertoire of standout songs such as “I,” “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Backseat Freestyle,” and many others.

Images ran continually through the dome featuring video of Prince, Oprah Winfrey, George W. Bush, and Bill O’Reilly’s infamous Inside Edition rant. The backdrops might seem random, but when you see a shouting Bill while Kendrick raps his politically charged song “Alright,” it feels all right indeed because the combination provides audio and visual stimuli simultaneously.

Interluding his songs with mini autograph sessions for fans in the front row, Lamar signed anything from papers to tickets to a shoe. He really is a man of the people, and he made that abundantly clear when he addressed the crowd.

The small-in-stature but large-in-presence Lamar flowed seamlessly and relentlessly, his words weaving in and out without pause or fatigue, sweat pouring from his face. Fans huddled in masses, throwing their hands in the air when Lamar told them to join in.

“I don’t care if you got a cardigan or a fancy hat, you’re going to jump!” Lamar exclaimed. So they did, completely enveloped and engaged.

As entertaining as the show was, there was a slightly awkward feeling in watching a nearly all-white crowd jump and sway along to complex and socially conscious rap. There are themes and lyrics in his songs that require attentive listening and understanding, but there usually isn’t time for that kind of retrospection at a live show.

It doesn’t matter to Lamar, though. An artist known for his authenticity and unfiltered commentary, he showed the same love and frenetic showmanship as in any other performance.

During this strange and scary period in American history, Lamar’s voice might be more important than ever. As he urged the crowd during the end of his set to “celebrate love tonight, not hate,” it felt like a rare dose of reality amid the fantasyland of Art Basel.

Music, meet art. You two should meet more often.