The star power of Kendrick Lamar and his label mates at Top Dawg Entertainment continues to rise year after year. After performing at the Air Canada Centre twice last summer during his DAMN Tour, Kendrick started off 2018 by announcing The Championship Tour, with almost the entire roster signed to Top Dawg Entertainment joining him. While Kendrick Lamar is clearly the MVP of his label, this would be a rare first opportunity for many fans to see him perform with his entire team.
Not only would superstar Kendrick Lamar be touring again, but he would be joined by RnB singer SZA, whose debut album Ctrl went platinum and racked up some Grammy nominations this year, as well as his fellow Black Hippy members Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, and Jay Rock. While Black Hippy has yet to release an album together, the success of each of the four MCs’ solo releases makes them one of the biggest groups in Hip-Hop today. With The Championship Tour being their first major international tour together, and each artist arguably being at the height of their fame, this was easily one of the most anticipated concert tours of the year. Needless to say, expectations were high going into this.
Unfortunately, SZA ended up damaging her vocal chords early on in the tour, and had to be removed from the lineup for the remaining dates, including Toronto. We got to the Budweiser Stage early and saw she was still represented well though, as her t-shirts were featured prominently among the tour merch, which included some fly but overpriced hoodies, tees and hats. The Budweiser Stage was decorated with championship banners of several of T.D.E’s achievements, including SZA, Kendrick, and Schoolboy Q’s platinum-selling albums, Kendrick’s 12 Grammy awards, and of course the most recent achievement at the center: Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize for DAMN.
Even though this concert was easily sold out, fans were slow to fill up the amphitheatre, as there was still plenty of open space even as the show got started an hour later than scheduled. Eventually, the first artist on the T.D.E lineup was announced in a major league sports style, and Lance Skiiiwalker came out to sing. With a backdrop showing baseball cards featuring Lance, he performed one quick song before passing the mic to SiR, who also had his own baseball card backdrop. SiR knocked out a handful of songs off of his new November album, and the show continued fluidly to the Black Hippy members.
Rather than perform together, Black Hippy took turns performing individually with solo sets. First up was Ab-Soul, who had his own baseball card on display, along with targets around the stage. He came out holding a bow and arrow, waving it as he performed “RAW (Backwards)” to spark some energy in the crowd. He then kept the crowd pumped up with his 2012 throwback “Terrorist Threats,” changing the lyrics in the second verse to take a shot at Donald Trump. With the archery theme representing the precision in Soulo’s wordplay, he then performed the lyrical exercise “Huey Knew THEN,” getting the crowd to shout the lyric “blackout!” in the hook. While all of these songs were familiar from when he performed in Toronto on The YMF Tour last year, he did do something new, closing his set with his feature on the Black Panther soundtrack, “Bloody Waters.”
The sun was setting and the amphitheatre was getting close to completely packed as Jay Rock took the stage next. This would be a big show for Jay Rock, as it was his first time ever performing in Toronto, and he also has his third album Redemption set to drop this Friday (June 15, 2018). He had just dropped episode one of his “Road To Redemption” documentary series on YouTube the day of this concert.
While Ab-Soul’s archery-themed set showcased lyrical marksmanship, Jay Rock’s set had a basketball theme to go with his style and aggression. He started off with the Black Hippy song “Vice City,” performing both of his verses. It seemed strange that the squad would let him rock this song on his own so early, as it’s one of the few where all four of them make appearances. While none of his fellow Black Hippy members joined him on stage, Jay Rock did have the Top Dawg mascot with him turning up as he performed the 2011 throwback “Hood Gone Love It.” The crowd loved it anyway, as he moved forward to 2018 with his verse on “King’s Dead,” the mascot dunking a basketball to set off some fireworks. Jay Rock then closed out his set with the new single off the upcoming album, “Win,” and got the whole crowd to chant the hook along with him.
The sets were short up to this point, with Ab-Soul and Jay Rock performing four songs each, but Schoolboy Q would get double the time on stage with eight songs. As with Jay Rock, Q started his set with a song that could have easily had all four Black Hippy members performing together, but was left to rock it solo: “THat Part.” Rather than perform the Black Hippy Remix, Schoolboy Q performed the original version, getting the crowd to help him cover Kanye West’s verse on the track and sing the hooks. He would completely ignore his first two albums and would only perform songs off of the platinum-certified Oxymoron and the gold-certified Blank Face LP. He got the crowd dancing to “What They Want” before mellowing things out with “Studio,” then picking the energy back up with “Dope Dealer” and some pyrotechnics.
The rest of Q’s set would be straight bangers off of that platinum Oxymoron album, including “Collard Greens” (without an appearance from Kendrick), “Hell of a Life,” and “Break The Bank.” With it being almost two years since Q released his last album, he made sure to announce that after Jay Rock drops his new release this Friday, TDE will look at releasing Schoolboy Q’s fifth album before the end of the year. On that note, he ended his set the same way he did when I saw him at NXNE in 2016, with the hit “Man of the Year.” The crowd got as energized as they had been all night!
There was a bit of a light show on stage as fans waited for TDE’s MVP, Kendrick Lamar. As he did during The DAMN Tour last summer, Kendrick eventually started his set just as the album starts, with a quick intro followed by the single “DNA.” The energy was cranked right away, as he appeared atop the set of screens that were showing the artists’ baseball cards earlier, except now the screen simply read “Pulitzer Kenny” (rather than Kung-Fu Kenny). Kendrick then moved right into another DAMN single with “Element,” making his way down to the main stage area to engage the crowd. He followed up with the Black Panther song “Big Shot” before eventually turning the clock backwards to move into some throwbacks.
Kendrick teased the instrumental from “Yah” before unexpectedly diving into 2015’s “King Kunta.” He also rocked “Untitled 07” and “Goosebumps” before taking it all the way back to his major-label debut album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, performing the hits “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and half of “Backseat Freestyle.” With the energy cranked up at this point, he then mellowed things out with some of the more laidback songs from DAMN, getting the crowd to sing Rihanna’s part of “Loyalty” with him. He also performed “Lust” before getting into what may have been the most exciting part of the concert.
While the Black Hippy members generally didn’t share the stage with each other, the fans did get to see a rare performance of the full-length version of “Money Trees,” with Jay Rock coming out to perform his verse with Kendrick. They also rocked “King’s Dead” together, with Jay Rock nailing his verse again and Kendrick rocking the hooks. They did however make the fans sit through Future’s wack vocals without getting the payoff of Kendrick’s incredible verse at the end of the song. Kendrick had other ways of turning the crowd up though, as Jay Rock left the stage and K-Dot performed the high-energy “XXX” and “m.A.A.d City,” with pyrotechnics shooting off flames around him. Even with that slight disappointment earlier, the show was still lit, literally.
Fans lit up all of their cell phones as Kendrick went mellow again, performing “Love” as well as the remix version of “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.” After the throwback fan-favourite, he then did one last song off of each of his newer albums, with 2015’s “Alright” and 2017’s “Humble.” As he did throughout The DAMN Tour, he closed out the show by letting the fans rap the second verse of “Humble” accapella for him, before performing the song a second time and doing all the rapping himself. There was no encore performance, and no other collaborations on stage, as the house lights came on and the fans cleared out.
Overall, this was a fun show, but it was a bit of a letdown not seeing the T.D.E. artists interact with each other much. With the exception of Jay Rock, all of the Black Hippy members have performed in Toronto individually within the past two years, and if you went to those shows, you didn’t get to see much of anything new at The Championship Tour, other than them all performing shortened sets back to back. As a T.D.E. fan, I was looking forward to seeing Ab-Soul and Kendrick perform “Illuminate” together, or Ab-Soul and Schoolboy Q perform “Beat The Case” or “Druggys Wit Hoes Again” together, or Jay Rock and Kendrick perform “Easy Bake,” or Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock perform “Los Awesome,” or all four of them performing “Vice City” or “Black Lip Bastard” or “THat Part Remix.”
To be fair, it was still an awesome show that was definitely worth it for the fans who haven’t been able to catch these artists on tour before. When an Earth-shattering announcement like The Championship Tour‘s lineup is made, the expectations are naturally set really high, and even a great concert like this can still come up short. Then again, the concept of The Championship Tour is to celebrate the things that have made this team successful thus far, and that includes all of their previous concerts with these very similar setlists (although all of them were shortened, some more extremely than others). This is just the first time T.D.E’s roster has done a tour like this together, and I doubt it will be their last.
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