Kendrick Lamar, SZA and their Top Dawg Entertainment mates took over White River Amphitheatre when their Championship Tour came to the Seattle area on Saturday.
Some people really know how to make an entrance. As an ominous beat double-barrel blasts through the audio of a Fox News segment dismissing Kendrick Lamar’s anti-police brutality lyrics, there stands the most vital rapper in America atop a video screen depicting a fiery urban hellscape.
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Eventually the roar of the crowd settles to take in Lamar’s equally flammable bars from his 2017 hit “DNA.” Midway through the opening track to his White River Amphitheatre set, the lyrical virtuoso upshifts into a dizzying double-time verse, peeling off like a Lambo down Crenshaw Boulevard.
The Championship Tour, which stormed the Auburn amphitheatre on Saturday, is supposed to be a victory lap for Lamar and his Top Dawg Entertainment label. But clearly its flagship artist hasn’t lost his edge. In case the thousands of rabid fans in attendance forgot, NBA-style banners framing the stage reminded us of his and his labelmates’ (mostly commercial) accomplishments: the platinum albums, Grammys and, of course, Lamar’s recently nabbed Pulitzer Prize.
In most cases, the self-congratulating might come off as standard rap puffery, but as the flaming images cut to the words “Pulitzer Kenny,” it feels more like a win for hip-hop culture than a personal boast. Few have done as much to advance the genre that only a few decades ago was fighting to be taken seriously by the mainstream.
Even with appearances from the bulk of TDE’s talented roster, the show moved at a brisk pace, with Lamar taking the stage just minutes after blossoming R&B star SZA capped her magnetic set. While SZA’s charmingly earnest confessionals between songs (she’s the type of relatable star you want to binge watch “Broad City” with) lent a playful intimacy to her sultry love dramas, Lamar was a man of fewer words, letting his lyrics do most of the talking.
Of all the performers, Lamar made the most of the tour’s agile house band, taking down “monkey mouth” subordinates to the stomp-funk of “King Kunta” and live drums giving “Backseat Freestyle” added thunder. After a mid-set cool-down that included fan favorite “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and the Rihanna-aided “Loyalty,” it was back to ballistic Kenny rapping with N.W.A-level ferocity on “XXX” and “m.A.A.d. city,” reflecting the pain and trappings of violence in his native Compton.
But even some of Lamar’s heftiest songs gravely addressing inner-city life and racial disparity in America had hints of Saturday-night levity, thanks to a gently funky guitar lick on “Money Trees” or the hip-loosening swing of the hopeful Black Lives Matter anthem “Alright.”
Lamar, decked out in a Nike-emblazoned race car driver’s suit (Formula One swag?) in keeping with the Championship Tour’s sporty theme, brought a number of his TDE mates on stage, including Schoolboy Q, who earlier lumbered his way through a booming festival-aimed set. (Q’s live act rarely lives up to his woozy studio gems that slither like a python big-gulping lean.) Still, the longtime collaborators did in fact “[expletive] the place up” with their rowdy “X” off the Lamar-helmed “Black Panther” soundtrack. SZA returned next for “All the Stars” — easily Lamar’s poppiest track — hinting at just how far this Grammy-nominated meteoroid could travel.
Not to be outdone, K-Dot closed his hourlong set, which felt like a celebratory wake-up call, by annihilating the nimble beat of “Humble,” a prancing and pounding rejoinder to his own success.
It’s hard to overstate Lamar’s achievements in advancing both hip-hop culture and the difficult conversation America is having about race. And despite an evening of deserved back-patting, Lamar doesn’t seem content. After all, we’re living in an age when a rapper from Compton can win a Pulitzer, but two black men can be arrested while trying to get a cup of coffee. There’s still work to do.