Kendrick Lamar’s TDE Championship Tour didn’t feel like a team effort

Though it was billed as a label showcase, SZA's absence made the Budweiser Stage tour stop feel more like a typical opener-opener-headliner show


KENDRICK LAMAR, SCHOOLBOY Q, JAY ROCK, AB-SOUL, LANCE SKIIIWALKERand SIR at Budweiser Stage on Tuesday, June 12. Rating: NNN


Top Dawg Entertainment is taking a much-deserved victory lap.

Celebrating a near decade of major successes since Kendrick Lamar’s first EP in 2009, the Los Angeles-based record label’s Championship Tour touched down in Toronto with the majority of its label roster, but with one glaring omission. SZA, the first lady of TDE, who announced that she’d permanently injured her vocal chords last month, did not perform, and her absence was felt in the pacing of the show. 

The tour committed wholeheartedly to a sports theme: championship banners like those that hang in high school gyms framed the stage boasting of the artists’ many accolades, from Grammys and Soul Train awards to Lamar’s recent Pulitzer Prize win. Even the merch was designed to resemble jerseys. 

One after another, the artists came out to play short sets, with short breaks in between as DJ Mackwop kept the crowd hyped. Each artist embodied an athlete persona. SiR was dressed in baseball gear and Jay Rock wore a basketball uniform, with their “stats” displayed on screens behind them. Like Ab-Soul before them, both artists performed quick sets, each giving a little taste of their woozy soul vibes and bombastic rapping, respectively. 

Schoolboy Q rolled in on a golf cart next with two giant screens playing aerial views of a golf course and loops of Tiger Woods pumping the air in victory. He’s reliant on backing tracks, but he has enough high-energy hits to keep the crowd’s energy elevated. While the other openers didn’t elicit a strong reaction, heavy hitters like THat Part and Collard Greens got people up and moving.

Near the end of his set, Q mentioned how lucky the crowd should feel to be there because “a lot of motherfuckers couldn’t afford tickets” and looking out at the sea of mostly white affluent millennials, it became soberingly apparent that the prices for stadium shows frequently make them inaccessible to marginalized people. 

Q is more accustomed to playing big stages than the other openers that played, and he definitely knows how to have a party on stage, but he lacks the showstopping performance skills that SZA would have brought in the same pre-headliner slot. Unfortunately, Lamar didn’t come out for his verse on Collard Greens and Q didn’t really do it justice.

SZA’s set would have followed Q’s and the show was missing some heart without the reprieve of her mellow, ethereal soul and female energy. Without her, it felt more like a Kendrick Lamar show with special guests than the variety show character of OVO Fest. TDE artists guest on each other’s songs often, and Lamar even has a group with Q, Jay Rock and Ab-Soul called Black Hippy, but they rarely seized the opportunity to collaborate onstage.

Of course, Lamar was the marquee name on the bill, and he showed why you’d want to see him live with or without his labelmates. With the breath control of a well-seasoned singer and a commanding aura that ignites any stage, Pulitzer Kenny (his latest alter-ego) is the real deal. His stage was adorned with a race car, maybe alluding to his rapid-fire bars or how quickly he ascended to rap royalty.

Visceral and entertaining, he went through his greatest hits like King Kunta, DNA, Swimming Pools (Drank) and Alright. The screens displayed contrasting visual motifs like crackling flames and crashing waves. Somber American flags, burning trees and blurred police lights accentuated the heavy, dark content of his lyricism.

After falling a little flat when he played it alone earlier, Jay Rock returned to the stage during Lamar’s set to join him on King’s Dead from the Black Panther soundtrack. Having the energy of both artists together gave a taste of what could have been, elevating both of them.

Still, Lamar’s presence was undeniable. He played fan favourite HUMBLE. – twice. The first time the crowd rapped almost the entire song acapella as he held the mic out, gratified. Then he ran it back and did it himself.

Working through the setbacks of SZA’s absence and isolated performances – just as a captain is expected to – Lamar’s closing set pulled it all together and made it feel like a TDE highlight reel.

Despite solid sets from all the artists, more shared stage time would have made the show feel like more of a championship team effort. 

music@nowtoronto.com | @kelseyxadams

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