Kendrick Lamar introduced a kung fu alter ego and Lorde dramatized the awkwardness of dance clubs as the stars presented new music Sunday at the Coachella festival.
The two artists, whose last albums each brought Grammy glory, played back-to-back sets to close the first weekend of the premier music festival in the desert of southern California.
Lamar has been hailed as an artistic voice of the Black Lives Matter movement but the rapper made an unexpected pivot into the supernatural at Coachella, entering with a fireball as the audience was invited to discover “the legend of Kung Fu Kenny.”
The character figures in the lyricism on Lamar’s latest album, “DAMN.,” which came out Friday. The Coachella crowd learned more about Kung Fu Kenny through a film interspersed in the set showing Lamar as an action hero descended from the mountains.
Lamar delved further into exoticized Asian imagery at his show where he danced across a nimble, sword-wielding ninja and the Chinese characters for “the end” flashed on overhead screens.
Kung Fu Kenny by the end of the film is said to be searching for a glowing elixir. A grinning Lamar emerges from between a woman’s legs — as his kung fu odyssey culminated, apparently, in cunnilingus.
Lamar joins a tradition of African American identification with Asian martial arts. The rapper has cited the influence of the Wu-Tang Clan and his film takes on a 1970s “blaxploitation” feel.
Whatever his kung fu aspirations, Lamar hasn’t given up the political. He opened both his set and album with a snippet from conservative-leaning Fox News criticizing “Alright,” his song of resilience in the face of police brutality.
“XXX.,” a song off the new album featuring the guitar rock of U2, laments street violence that has claimed too many African American lives yet it also takes to task the political system.
“America, god bless you if it’s good to you / America, please take my hand,” Lamar raps in the song, which he debuted live at Coachella.
Lamar closed his set melodiously, if anti-climactically, with his new ballad “LOVE.”
– Lorde shows night out –
Lorde, who had not performed for more than two years other than at a small pre-Coachella show in a nearby town, returned with a captivating piece of musical theater — centered around a testing night on the town.
After taking the stage to Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” the 20-year-old New Zealander stared stoically into space before breaking out into ecstatic dance.
Lorde became a breakaway sensation as a teenager with “Royals” — which she dutifully performed — and is coming out with her second album, “Melodrama,” in June.
Lorde premiered at Coachella another song off “Melodrama” — “Homemade Dynamite,” a track that is bouncy but shares the minimalism of “Royals” rather than the elaborate dance production off the new album’s first single, “Green Light.”
The album is about “all the ups and downs of being 20-something, and specifically all the ups and downs of an evening,” Lorde told the crowd.
She brought the storyline to life through a tableau vivant of sorts — performers inside a foggy box that hovered above the stage.
At first the performers mingle amicably but the interaction soon becomes agitated. By the time Lorde enters the box, the troupe is piled up upon one another and later smashes up a room full of balloons.
– Special guest –
Pulling in up to 250,000 people over back-to-back weekends with identical lineups, Coachella thrives on surprises — which appear quickly on social media and send fans scurrying across the grounds.
German film composer Hans Zimmer, one of the more unlikely Coachella acts, pulled in an open-air evening crowd with a piano recital of his scores to movies such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Lion King.”
He transitioned into Pharrell Williams’ hit “Freedom” — which brought the star in himself for a cameo.
Other highlights Sunday included Future Islands, the indie synthpop band whose frontman Samuel T. Herring is a frequent festival draw with his inimitable voice that reaches into a metal-like growl and back.
Spanish indie rockers Hinds enjoyed a surprisingly large crowd with dozens of fans storming the stage in joy — taking bassist Ade Martin at face value when she said that Spaniards believed in dancing at gigs.