At the 1995 Source Awards, Suge Knight simultaneously advertised Death Row Records and threw oil onto an already-raging East Coast-West Coast battle in Hip-Hop, saying, “Any artist out there that wanna be an artist, stay a star, and won’t have to worry about the executive producer trying to be all in the videos, all on the records, dancing – come to Death Row,” obviously meant as an attack on Puff Daddy and his Bad Boy Records.
A 21-year-old Anthony Tiffith was undoubtedly watching this unfold in real time. About a decade later, Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith had two signees to his record label, Top Dawg Entertainment, in the form of K-Dot, a.k.a. Kendrick Lamar, and Jay Rock. Eventually adding two more young artists named Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q, Top Dawg Entertainment made a name for itself in the independent Hip-Hop label scene.
The next few years put Top Dawg and his label on the map. In 2010 and 2011, the label put out Kendrick Lamar’s Overly Dedicated mixtape, Jay Rock’s Black Friday, Schoolboy Q’s Setbacks, and Ab-Soul’s Longterm Mentality, giving each member a project on the label, and setting the stage for things to come. Toward the end of 2011, the label helped release Jay Rock’s debut album, Follow Me Home, and Kendrick Lamar’s excellent debut, Section .80, which led to TDE penning a deal with Interscope.
If 2010 and 2011 put TDE on the map, 2012 put them in the history books. Together with Interscope and Aftermath Records, TDE put out Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, which became an instant classic. Other wins that year included Ab-Soul’s brilliant Control System and Schoolboy Q’s fantastic Habits and Contradictions. Six years later, the conversations surrounding TDE are not about their legitimacy, but rather where they stand among the greatest hip-hop labels of all time.
In celebration of their immense success, Top Dawg Entertainment did something rarely seen in Hip-Hop nowadays, and they took their entire artist roster around the country on the aptly named “The Championship Tour.” Many artists have joined TDE since the original four members, including the highly successful singer SZA, and rappers Lance Skiiwalker and SiR, all of whom were scheduled to perform on June 1, at Jiffy Lube Live, in Bristow, Va. Unfortunately, SZA was experiencing vocal issues and did not perform. After short sets from most of the TDE roster, the main act of the night, Kendrick Lamar, was highly anticipated by the audience of tens of thousands of mostly teens and young adults.
The pavilion’s enormous stage was lined with instrumentalists of all sorts. The stage held a TDE golf cart and racecar at different points throughout the show, in addition to many other large props. Along the edges of the structure framing the stage were large banners reading different accomplishments of TDE’s artists. Kendrick Lamar’s accolades took up the most space, with each of his three latest albums occupying their own banner. Along with highlighting the accomplishments of SZA and Kendrick, the banners also served to unintentionally highlight the disparity between these two artists and the rest of the label in terms of recognition. While Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock and friends are quality artists in their own right, none of them have seen anywhere close to the same amount of critical and commercial success as their two label mates.
The entire back of the stage was a screen, split into top and bottom, often showing the artist performing during the opening sets who were being filmed live and projected onto the back of the stage and the screens outside of the pavilion that allow the thousands on the lawn of the venue to view the performers. The top part of the screen also had a performance area jutting out, allowing different images to be projected behind and below the artist. Every aspect of this set up was utilized throughout Kendrick Lamar’s headlining set.
The pavilion went dark, and the unimposing figure of Kendrick Lamar emerged and knelt on the top stage. The crowd’s reaction was immediate and deafening. After some time, the audience’s only warning was “I got, I got, I got, I got,” before being thrown into Kendrick’s explosive “DNA,” from 2017’s DAMN. Kendrick hit every word while putting his entire body into performing within a small area on the top stage. Anyone familiar with the song knows that it is a two-minute barrage of bass and lyrics, followed by a slight reprieve. This pause, lengthened for the concert, was filled with cheers and screams from the awed crowd. The break does not last long as a familiar Geraldo Rivera sample plays out. “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years,” Rivera says, which is followed by the most aggressive track Kendrick Lamar has ever laid to wax. Behind Lamar during this brilliant display is another, two words on the screen, “Pulitzer Kenny,” alluding to the Pulitzer Prize Kendrick Lamar was recently awarded for his album DAMN. Lamar is the first non-classical or jazz artist to win the prize.
Each of the remaining 17 songs in Lamar’s set was equally as impressive and intricate in both performance and peripherals. The screens behind Kendrick were as dynamic as the rapper himself, going from nature films to abstract imagery depending on the song. Some songs, such as “LOYALTY,” employed the used of mild pyrotechnics, with fire erupting from several spouts on the stage, the heat palpable to much of the front of the audience. The 30-year-old’s set list mixed in songs from all of Kendrick’s major projects since 2012, citing these as “day one” songs, despite mentioning 2009’s The Kendrick Lamar EP, the first project under Kendrick Lamar’s own name (as opposed to K-Dot, his original rap moniker).
Kendrick Lamar brought out Jay Rock for his verse on “Money Trees,” as well as “King’s Dead,” from the Black Panther Soundtrack. He also surprised the audience with the new face from “LOVE”, Zacari, whose choirboy voice filled the pavilion. Kendrick opted to perform “m.A.A.d. city” without assistance from a member of the audience, perhaps due to a recent incident where a white fan received rapped the n-word into the microphone and received backlash from Kendrick. After most of his set, Kendrick ended the show the way he apparently has been for months now. After beginning his chart-topping hit “HUMBLE.” the music cut out, and the audience rapped the entirety of the song to Kendrick by themselves. After finishing, Kendrick went back to the beginning and performed the song himself, this time joined by every performer from TDE that evening, all dancing along. After the track ended, Kendrick left the audience with a simple message, “We will be back.”
Kendrick Lamar is arguably one of the most important artists of this generation in any medium. Not many have crossed boundaries like the Compton-born musician. The legitimacy and recognition Kendrick receives is deserved and comes in conjunction with an incredibly successful commercial career, with tens of thousands of fans willing to show up to see him anywhere he goes. Kendrick Lamar takes his craft very seriously. It is obvious that he is concentrating on putting his all into his performance at any given point, with little time in between songs to relax. Kendrick Lamar and his label have been creating groundbreaking musical content for about a decade, and will likely continue to do so in the decades to come.
These incredible photos from Kendrick Lamar’s performance at Jiffy Lube Live, in Bristow, VA, on June 1, 2018, were taken by StayUp.News senior content producer and photographer Jack M. Angelo:
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