Do they give Pulitzer Prizes for concerts featuring golf cart rides, cartoon sports-card backdrops and a slam-dunking doggie mascot?
If so, Kendrick Lamar might want to start clearing shelf space for plaque No. 2.
Weeks after the rapturous adulation that typically surrounds Lamar hit new heights with a surprise Pulitzer win for his 2017 album DAMN., the rapper brought all that and then some to Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre on Tuesday.
This was Lamar's second Tampa concert in just nine months, an unusually quick return that nevertheless drew 13,000 fans on a rainy weeknight. But this one came with a twist.
As another great West Coast wordsmith once put it, it ain't no fun if the homies can't have none – and so Lamar has brought on this tour nearly the entire roster of his Top Dog Entertainment label, a mix of rappers and singers adding new shades to the palette with which he paints his autobiographical American worldviews.
Unfortunately, hours before the show, Top Dawg announced that the evening's other top draw, Grammy-nominated singer SZA, would be skipping Tampa and other upcoming cities due to swollen vocal cords. But still in the mix were rapperrs Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock and Ab-Soul; and singers Sir, Lance Skiiiwalker and Zacari.
Dubbed the Championship Tour, the show revels in athletic imagery, right down to Lamar's teammates' uniforms and prop equipment: Sir came out with a baseball glove dangling from a bat; Ab-Soul brought out a crossbow and quiver of arrows; a basketball uni-rocking Rock was joined by a Top Dawg mascot. The stage was ringed with title banners like one might find in the rafters of a basketball arena, all celebrating platinum records, Grammy awards and, on one flag draped front and center, Lamar's DAMN. Pulitzer. (Nice touch, all of it, though the banners partially obstructed the stage view of dozens, if not hundreds, of fans on the amphitheater's edges, your humble reporter among them.)
It's a goofy concept, one that would seem to present quite a dichotomy between Kendrick Lamar, voice of a generation, and plain ol' Kenny Duckworth from Compton. But when the rapper opened with the blazing DNA., emerging on a stage midway up an enormous LED backdrop emblazoned with the words "Pulitzer Kenny," it seemed like he was comfortable balancing his genius with a gimmick.
"Is anybody alive right now?" Lamar asked the crowd, a Springsteenian welcome befitting his own intensity. The self-described "antisocial extrovert" isn't the most charismatic cat, but he looked leaner and more focused than he did back in September, pacing and honing in on specific audience members, occasionally coiling his arms around his torso like a snake about to strike.
The big hits landed in the stands like grenades: King Kunta and m.A.A.d City, booming and bellowing; Swimming Pools (Drank) and Alright, full of revival-like soul; Travis Scott's Goosebumps and LOVE., featuring a cameo by Zacari, both getting fans singing.
It was inevitable that the lyrical depth that won DAMN. a Pulitzer would take a backseat to the bangers in concert, yet Lamar didn't totally shy on the commentary. For XXX., an American flag backdrop gave way to blips of red, white and blue sirens whoop-whooping across the stage, leading into m.A.A.d City's gunfire-like pyro and resigned refrain, "They'd probably gun me down by the end of this song." Some fans rapped each song chapter and verse, but all knew the words to at least a few big bangers, and rhymed along accordingly:
We gon' be alright! I'mma make it look sexy! Levitate, levitate, levitate, levitate! Pour up, drank! MY LEFT STROKE JUST WENT VIRAL!!!
With SZA out of the picture, only a couple of other singers shared the bill. Skiiiwalker's mumbly, off-tone performance was flat as a flyer, but Sir's molten moan got legitimately steamy on The Canvas, W$ Boi, War and an a cappella skip through Don't Call My Phone. This was the vibe that got killed when SZA called in sick; good on Sir for saving it.
Ab-Soul kicked off the rapping with a quick but righteous set, with Terrorist Threats and Bloody Waters dripping with anger and intensity. And hot on the heels of announcing his new album Redemption, Jay Rock brought an inspired, Tupac-like cockiness to his songs, culminating in one of the year's big Black Panther soundtrack hits, King's Dead.
The top undercard slot fell to Schoolboy Q, who to his credit stepped up with a set of caffeinated command. Nothing in his 40-minute set landed quite as hard as his opener, That Part, but backed by a full band and fronted by exploding plumes of smoke, he spun and thundered through winners like What They Want, Collard Greens and the rampaging Man of the Year; and tugged the house into a stony haze on Studio. All accolades aside, Schoolboy performed like a proper headliner, to the point it's hard to argue he didn't hold his own against K.Dot.
The tour missed an opportunity by not pairing up more of these labelmates. Both Schoolboy Q (X) and Jay Rock (the slow-rolled G-funker Money Trees and a reprise of King's Dead) dropped into Lamar's set, but otherwise, collaborations were scant – a shame, because every time one happened, the performers fed off the energy of one another, Kendrick included.
Case in point: The very end of the show. Lamar stopped rapping midway through huge hit HUMBLE., let the audience finish a cappella, then walked off before rewinding the song for an encore. At a certain point, the rest of the lineup sauntered back out to join him, including – what's this? – an ailing SZA, still in the Top Dawg tennis outfit she would've worn had she not been placed on injured reserve.
You couldn't hear SZA, but she looked to be having a good time, as did everyone else in the Top Dawg family. Maybe, just maybe, the real Pulitzer Prize was all the friends Kendrick's made along the way. Better build another bookshelf just in case.
— Jay Cridlin