I first encountered Kendrick Lamar’s music when he participated in a remix of Imagine Dragons’ 2012 smash hit “Radioactive”. I knew absolutely nothing about him, and since I was twelve years old, I definitely wasn’t allowed to listen to his breakout album Good Kid Mad City which was blowing up and propelling him to stardom. His performance of the song on SNL really stuck with me though, and despite the fact that I wouldn’t get into rap for about five more years his intensity and skill as a wordsmith impressed me. “Bury me alive, bury me with pride/ Bury me with berries, the forbidden fruit and cherry wine”. There was just something poetic about those opening lines that added a lot to the determined pop-rock anthem.
Three years later To Pimp A Butterfly came out, and I ignored it, as I did his next release Untitled Unmastered, which I saw as a new low in terms of music’s diminishing creativity. In 2016, Lamar released Damn which came with quite a bit of hype given the extreme success of his last full length performance. I had no plans to check it out, until I heard that Bono was featured on the album. Curious I checked out the song, XXX. I’ll be honest, as much as I’d like to say that it blew my mind on first listen, I was fairly unimpressed. The first part of the song felt repetitive, and the second part with the feature from Bono was maddeningly short.
For whatever reason, I decided to give it a second shot, and I listened to the whole album. Again, nothing stuck out to me but I realized that there was something big going on. Kendrick was discussing compelling topics in a fascinating way. My interest slowly grew until he became one of my favorite musicians.
Imagine my joy when I realized that He and the rest of the TDE crew were going on tour together, and what’s more, the tickets were listed for about $25. Well, not quite, after ticketmaster’s fees and such they ended up to be more like $50 each, but I was still overjoyed to see a masterful artist in concert.
And while I had a great time, I’d be lying if I said that from a critical standpoint there wasn’t something missing. The first act was SiR, who I haven’t really listened to enough of to have an opinion about. He was fine, I suppose. Not amazing, but not terrible either.
Next came Ab-Soul who fully embraced the goofy premise of the tour’s sports theme, walking out holding a bow and arrow. As before, His set wasn’t terrible but not mind blowing.
Jay Rock, in contrast, appeared to take the theme very seriously, walking out in a basketball uniform and assisting a mascot in dunking a basketball at one point. Rock made it painfully clear though, how obsolete his bling-era artistry has become in recent years. The only songs he performed either featured verses by Kendrick Lamar that were cut out, or had his recorded vocals playing. In the case of King’s dead, which was inexplicably a part of Lamar’s set as well, the best part of the song (Kendrick’s beat shift) was totally cut out.
Schoolboy Q’s performance was the first of the crews’ that I felt tangibly. He came out with a full lightshow and a band (that sounded excellent). I’m not a huge fan of his, so I didn’t know many of the songs save for a few (“Hell of a Night, Collard Greens,.. his hits) but I definitely enjoyed that set and the way he interacted with the band jumping atop the drum kit and hitting a cymbal repeatedly at the performance’s end.
By this point, I had been sitting in Hershey Park stadium for several hours so I went for a walk. I was just walking out of the bathroom when I heard — seemingly reverberating through the floor — the instantly recognizable cadence that starts any K-Dot fans head bobbing; “I got, I got, I got, I got!”.
I sprinted back fast enough to catch most of “DNA”, Kendrick’s epic descriptions of his own conflicting origins and motivations as a human being. It’s one of his most braggadocious tracks, but also one of his most vulnerable; “Power, poison, pain, and joy inside my DNA”. After the beat switch came the screen behind Kendrick turned bright, fuzzy, white. “Pulitzer Kenny” appeared written in scrawling black font, as though written with a giant sharpie. This set the tone for the rest of the show, and confirmed the prior crewmembers’ purpose. This tour was TDE’s victory lap. Having built themselves up from a small, California label, they have become musical giants, and and arguably the foremost proprietors of intelligent hip-hop in an age where the genre is frequently everything but.
Keeping this in mind, I wasn’t expecting very many deep cuts. I’d come to terms that there would be no ten-minute jam version of “Untitled 05” and probably no “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”. We did get two tracks from To Pimp a Butterfly: “King Kunta”, and “Alright”, and to my delight Kendrick’s band, who’ve been confirmed by interviews as musical virtuosos gave every song that indescribable “live-music” quality that shakes you to your very core. However, I couldn’t help feeling like this concert was for people who aren’t serious fans of Kendrick Lamar. I frequently got the vibe that Kenny was almost embarrassed by the true sentiments behind the songs and the way they don’t exactly jive with traditional rap messages. Kendrick preluded “Money Trees” a song about greed driving someone to do terrible things by saying “Let’s get this money”.
I recently saw U2’s Innocence And Experience tour, which is a masterpiece to say the least (a colleague of mine put out a write-up about it not too long ago). U2 has written their share of satirical songs where they embody a point of view that is not necessarily the one they are trying to convey, such as “Acrobat” (a hypocrite), “Staring at the Sun” (a person drowning in ignorance) and “Until the End of the World” (Judas himself?). They fit these songs into a narrative though by performing them in a block, and by making them clear that these were satirical performances (Bono did his Mr. Macphisto bit, it was terrifying). I’m not saying Kendrick needed to go to all of that trouble — though I’d like to see him try — but It would have been nice if his setlist clicked as perfectly as his tracklists always do.
Kendrick followed “DNA” with “ELEMENT” another quasi-caricature of his own rap-image, and the “Big Shot”, a less lyrical cut that pretty much accomplishes the same goal. This makes sense. Later in the set though you get weird arrangements like “Swimming Pools”, a song that makes binge-drinking sound like the worst thing ever sandwiched between Rich The Kid’s “New Freezer” (a generic trap song by a generic trap artist) and “Backseat Freestyle”; a lyrically dense banger no less, but definitely not anti-alcohol. These songs are awkwardly placed because they have conflicting messages. I suppose an argument could be made that they represent some sort of nuanced irony, or the fact that conscious rap gets swallowed up by the negative messages that the genre loves so much, but honestly, I just think nobody cared enough to create a setlist that made sense.
Top Dawg is a musical force to be reckoned with, helmed by some innovative business men and some fantastically charismatic artists. As a crew, they have managed to — in the slickest fashion — meld testosterone laden savagery with estrogenic grace. The members all have fantastic chemistry when they work together, and I was looking forward to seeing that here. Instead, any semblance of collaboration seemed to be orchestrated to provide just enough to quell any suggestions that teamwork was totally absent. I realize that my expectations seem unrealistic, but are they really when it comes to Top Dawg? We (I) have grown accustomed to a higher standard of quality from the label. Innovative performances, and introspective, beautiful lyrics across the board. That night though, Kendrick and company seemed content to have a good time.
5 Awesome TDE Songs, for the Uninitiated
- “Untitled 02” by Kendrick Lamar: An insane sax part that fuses jazz with trap rhythm, flanked by Lamar’s inebriated inflection, and some abruptly sobering bars.
- “Ab-Soul’s Outro” by Kendrick Lamar: Ab-Soul and Lamar team up on this track as the near-closer to his commercial debut Section.80 with a similarly jazzy instrumental that can be seen as foreshadowing for To Pimp A Butterfly which would drop four years later.
- Raw (Backwards) By Ab-soul (feat. Zacari): This song is an excellent example of what ‘Soul is capable of, as well as a chance to hear Zacari doing something besides the chorus of “LOVE”
- Redemption by Jay Rock (Feat. SZA): The title track off of Rock’s new album, this is the record’s most beautiful moment, made more beautiful by SZA’s sweet vocals.
- Broken Clocks by SZA: Simply a catchy song with an amazing hook that gives me goosebumps every time.