At one point on Friday night, Kendrick Lamar beseeched the crowd at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, Va., to “live in the moment.” Lamar probably hasn’t had many Zen moments recently: On Wednesday, he took a break from touring to accept the Pulitzer Prize for music, the first nonclassical, non-jazz artist to do so; and then he was back on the road, headlining the “Championship Tour” with his Top Dawg Entertainment label mates.
The Championship Tour is justly named: Top Dawg has plenty of platinum plaques and a dozen Grammy awards (and that Pulitzer) on its shelves, accolades and honors that appeared as championship pennants that bracketed the stage. To double down on the music-as-sports metaphor, every performer’s set had a sports theme, with a trading-card background and matching props, from Ab-Soul’s bow and arrow to Schoolboy Q’s souped-up golf cart. But on Friday, Lamar felt like a different all-timer who’s aiming for championships while standing head and shoulders above the veterans and role players on his team: LeBron James.
That’s not to say that Lamar’s label mates aren’t talented. They’re just not on his level. (The one with the best odds to level up, R&B star SZA, has left the tour to rest her swollen vocal cords.) And even during their brief sets, Lamar loomed large. Psychedelic philosopher Ab-Soul closed his stage time with “Bloody Waters,” a Lamar-featuring song from the Lamar-curated “Black Panther” soundtrack. All four of Jay Rock’s songs included prerecorded Lamar vocals, as did some of the biggest hits from the set of the charismatic, raspy-voiced Schoolboy Q. For the first two hours of the show, Lamar was everywhere and nowhere. TDE could borrow his real family name and rebrand itself Total Duckworth Entertainment.
Whatever it stands for, TDE is a tight ship. There wasn’t any dawdling between sets, and Lamar took the stage promptly at 9:30 p.m., the only performer to rap atop one of the video screens — a reminder of who towers above everyone else on the bill.
Throughout his hour-plus set, the self-described “antisocial extrovert” was a master technician, serving poetic justice with precision, whether delivering confrontational crowd pleasers such as “DNA” and “M.A.A.D. City” or moody meditations such as “Love” and “B----, Don’t Kill My Vibe.” Taking a break from his personal canon, Lamar performed his verses as featured on Travis $cott’s “Goosebumps” and Rich the Kid’s “New Freezer,” breaking down tired, false hip-hop dichotomies about what’s “real rap” and what isn’t.
Apart from a racecar prop and some checkered flags, Lamar didn’t bother with the Championship Tour’s sports themes. Instead, he went bigger: The video screens broadcast images of both the beauty and the overwhelming power of the elements, and his four-piece backing band added heft and drama to the music. All of it suggested an imminent apocalypse that would leave only Lamar standing. When he performed the empowering Black Lives Matter anthem “Alright,” he told the crowd to “turn the place upside down,” and, for a moment, it seemed as though he could make it happen.