It’s not often that an event like the TDE Championship Tour comes to fruition. The sheer feat of booking almost every act from a single label to the same tour, which will cross the country for six weeks, is remarkable. But it’s indicative of the exceptional things that fans have come to expect from Top Dawg Entertainment, perhaps the most successful rap label of this decade, following a banner 2017 during which it released arguably the two best albums of the year.
The bill included relative unknowns Lance Skiiiwalker and SiR, longtime TDE staples Jay Rock and Ab-Soul, burgeoning fan-favorites SZA and Schoolboy Q, and a bona fide superstar headliner in Kendrick Lamar. Boasting almost every single TDE-signed artist at the time of the tour’s announcement, the only noticeable absence from the roster was up-and-coming labelmate, Isaiah Rashad.
Unfortunately, by the time South Florida’s date rolled around on Thursday, the big story of the evening wasn’t about who was there, but who wasn’t. SZA’s absence due to swollen vocal cords put a significant damper on the proceedings, crushing the hopes of fans who had bought tickets to see songs from her immaculate debut, Ctrl, performed live.
SZA’s absence clearly messed with the meticulously plotted flow of the evening. For a show with so many artists on the bill, it’s incredible that it only went on for about two-and-a-half hours. Starting promptly at 8 p.m, SiR, a highlight from the Miguel show I covered in March, stepped his game up for the TDE tour, putting on a streamlined show that defied the “worst comes first” opener label, though he only had about 20 minutes on stage to work with. His was the first of a handful of micro-sets, during which an artist would take to the stage for 15 to 20 minutes to perform a small handful of tracks.
The show was efficient and streamlined, with barely any dead-air time left between the many different acts. Occasionally a song would play over the PA to entertain the crowd in between sets, such as Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a flashback to when Green Day pulled the same stunt at the same venue before their show back in October.
The cleverest aspect of the show was the commitment to its baseball theme. What began with a tour announcement poster way back in January carried all the way through the show, with some artists wearing baseball jerseys and faux baseball cards for each rapper displayed on the screens behind them. Talk about attention to detail: each baseball card listed a fun-fact about the artist as well as a tidbit about their pre-show ritual.
The artists who did perform on Wednesday night seemed to be enjoying themselves, with some even bringing props along. Ab-soul took to the stage with an archery theme, holding a bow, arrows strung around his back, and a large target propped up behind him. Schoolboy Q came out on a TDE-branded golf cart. The only artist who didn’t adhere to a theme was the evening’s headliner, Kendrick Lamar, who didn’t need any gimmicks to infuse his set with spectacle.
Kendrick was, of course, the biggest draw of the night, taking the stage after the haunting score from the movie “Annihilation” stoked the crowd’s anticipation. Kendrick, a unique performer and artist with an uncanny ability to bottle up and embody the zeitgeist of modern culture, put on a set that was transcendent, but fell just short of revolutionary. Following two smash-hit records in 2017’s DAMN. and this year’s Black Panther: The Album, Kendrick had no shortage of hits to deploy throughout his 70-minute set, which covered each of his studio albums since 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city.
For a show with so many artists from the same label, it was surprising to see how few crossovers and collaborations took place on stage. Black Hippy, the collective of Kendrick, Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul, and Jay Rock, never once appeared together on stage. Yes, Kendrick brought out Jay Rock for “Kings’s Dead,” but only after Jay Rock had already closed his micro-set with the track sans-Kendrick. Schoolboy Q busted out fan-favorite “Collard Greens” late in his set, but again, Kendrick was nowhere to be found for his verse. And of course, the Black Panther lead single “All the Stars” was absent along with the ailing SZA.
Despite some setbacks and questionable scheduling, The Championship Tour stayed true to its promise of being a larger-than-life event, the biggest-scale and most exciting rap tour of the summer. As to whether or not it lived up to the hype, that depends on who you were there to see.
Kendrick Lamar Setlist:
3) Big Shot
4) YAH. (song played over PA while Kendrick spoke to the crowd, no verses)
5) King Kunta
6) Untitled 07 | 2014 – 2016
7) goosebumps (Travis Scott cover)
8) New Freezer (Rich the Kid cover)
9) Swimming Pools (Drank)
10) Backseat Freestyle
12) Money Trees (with Jay Rock)
13) King’s Dead (with Jay Rock)
15) m.A.A.d city
17) Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe
19) X (Schoolboy Q cover, with Schoolboy Q)