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Kendrick Lamar at Barclays Center: Next-level beats, flow, no chaser

Kendrick Lamar performs in Quebec City, Canada on

Kendrick Lamar performs in Quebec City, Canada on July 7, 2017. Lamar, 30, played a spare, music-driven 90-minute set Thursday night, July 20, 2017, at Brooklyn's Barclays Center. Photo Credit: Invision / AP / Amy Harris

Kendrick Lamar’s show at Barclays Center Thursday night started with him being attacked by a sword-wielding ninja with nothing to protect himself but his words.

His words won.

It’s an important bit of imagery for a Grammy-winning rapper who spends the bulk of his albums taking on the establishment and its injustices. And Lamar hammers the message home on his “DAMN.” tour, with its essentially empty stage, his backing band hidden from view and his dancers only making sporadic appearances.

Like most hip-hop concerts, the rapper is the main focus. However, Lamar handles the spotlight differently from Kanye West, with his huge sets with floating islands and fake mountains, or Drake, with his impressive arena light show. (Opener Travis Scott did half of his set bouncing on the back of a giant mechanical eagle that hovered over the stage.) But K.Dot doesn’t need any of that.

His “DAMN.” album hit No. 1 and is 2017’s second-biggest seller so far, as well as the front-runner for album of the year. And his live show takes his mix of popular beats and well-crafted rhymes to the next level.

His flow is crisp and understandable even when the words start flying fast, and in a tribute to the passion of his fans, many are keeping up with him word for word.

“Do you remember?” Lamar asks the crowd at several points during the show. Sometimes, it’s to thank them for support through the years, back to his appearances at the intimate S.O.B’s club. But sometimes, he’s asking because he wants to make sure they understand, like a teacher prepping students for a quiz.

Even though the 90-minute show has plenty of fun moments — “King Kunta” is extra funky early on, “Swimming Pools” (Drank) is an impressive scream-along — Lamar’s main intentions are serious.

He does “M.A.A.D. City” with the top of the stage closing in on his head, as if it’s ready to squash him — a feeling he brings up often as he declares, “Ain’t nobody praying for me.”

What Lamar’s concert Thursday showed — he returns to Barclays Center Sunday — is that his art can get him some prayers, and some cheers as well.

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