“We Are The Champions” is a song that transcends all barriers. It doesn’t matter where you are or even when you are: It’s a song that would make about as much sense in the year 1500 as in 2018. Just crank that sucker and everyone in the general area, no matter their age or cultural background, gets caught up in its triumphant fervor. Sporting events, graduation ceremonies, trivia nights, all-star rap shows: all of them are enhanced by a lil’ bit of Freddie Mercury getting his brag on.
When “We Are The Champions” popped up as part of the house music for The Championship Tour, it made all the sense in the world. The tour itself is that song incarnated in physical form: a victory lap for Top Dawg Entertainment. The L.A. rap label has been riding quite the high over the last few years, producing acts like SZA and Schoolboy Q that can top charts and get love from critics. The crown jewel in their collection of acts, though, is Mr. Pulitzer Prize himself: Kendrick Lamar, a.k.a. King Kendrick, a.k.a. Kung-fu Kenny.
The Championship Tour is TDE taking all their big names on the road: Kendrick and his Black Hippy collective pals (Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock, and Ab-Soul), SZA, and a few up-and-coming dudes who can be safely filed away in the “I’m Just Lucky To Be Here” category. For rap fans, it’s the tour of the summer and they all came out in full force at Ak-Chin Pavilion.
The collective spirit of the night took a couple of body blows before getting into the arena. Lots of folks grumbled as they were turned away for bringing purses and backpacks: Ak-Chin doesn’t fuck around when it comes to their “clear bag” policy. Even more disheartening were the signs posted at Will Call announcing that SZA would not be here tonight due to unforeseen circumstances.
While the absence of SZA was a huge bummer, spirits remained high inside the jam-packed pavilion. Despite having a large bill of acts, The Championship Tour burned through the roster pretty quickly. SiR, Lance Skiiiwalker, and Ab-Soul only had a few songs each for their stage time (or just one song at all, in Skiiiwalker’s case). Every act in the show had a different sports theme associated with them: Jay Rock’s was basketball, Schoolboy Q golf, King Kenny was race cars, and so on.
Shortly before Schoolboy Q took the stage, that Queen song hit and the arena sang along to it; Freddie Mercury can’t be denied. Q rolled in afterward on a baller golf cart. Projected footage of golfers either playing the game or having epic golf cart fails played behind Q throughout his set.
Something was off with Schoolboy. It was apparent from his first song: rapping “THat Part,” he didn’t sound at all like himself. His voice was raspy and generic: close your eyes, and you would not have been able to tell it was really him onstage. Schoolboy on his records is a compelling vocalist, his voice strained and bratty: He sneers and leers through his raps. He sounds like the Pesci to Kendrick’s DeNiro: the wild-card shit-starter who needs to be kept on a leash.
The Schoolboy at The Championship Tour sounded nothing like that wiseguy. He had trouble keeping up with his music: backing vocals that actually sounded like him could be heard drowning him out at times. But the music still slapped: aside from the King himself, Schoolboy is TDE’s reliable hitmaker. From The Chromatics-sampling “Man Of The Year” to “Dope Dealer,” and “Hell of a Night,” he had the beats and sounds that could get an entire arena on their feet.
Backing Q and the rest of the acts on the tour was a live band. Flanking the acts on both sides of the stage, the TDE players laid down basslines, and vamped on the guitar throughout the night. Their bass player got a chance to shine with Schoolboy’s signature tune “Collard Greens,” plucking out a fat, rubbery dub bassline that would make Sly & Robbie weep.
After “Collard Greens,” Schoolboy addressed the elephant in the room, admitting that he was under the weather and had lost his voice. In retrospect, his set showed off how much of a trouper he was, croaking out hit after hit while being completely out of it.
Schoolboy’s golf cart was traded out for a race car, and a set of checkered flags. An electronic drone pulsed onstage as we waited for Kendrick’s set to start. We didn’t have to wait long: About 10 minutes after Q got offstage, The King had arrived.
Standing on a raised level above the stage, Kendrick rapped “DNA” while footage of fire and smoke blazed behind him on the big screen. Anyone who got to see Kendrick last year on his tour for DAMN. got to see how much Lamar has leveled up as a live performer. He’s one of the few rappers who's got the songs, the theatrical chops, and the sheer force of will to pull off an hourlong arena show. His headlining set for The Championship Tour showed that he hadn’t lost a step since then.
Kendrick’s set was heavy on cuts from DAMN., the Black Panther soundtrack, and Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, although he did dip into his B-sides to do “Untitled 07” off of Untitled Unmastered. Images of race cars wiping out, crashing waves, and swimming jellyfish played behind Kendrick as he burned through his songs (the best visual happened during “Untitled 07,” when Kendrick got his Last Jedi on, and created a line of Kendrick mirroring each other, Rey-in-the-Sith-Cave style). He also had pyro: Jets of fire shot up, and sparks rained down during “ELEMENT.”, and a smoke machine worked overtime throughout most of his set.
Kendrick even flexed on the crowd with his Pultizer win, throwing up the words PULITZER KENNY on the projection screen during the show. Who can blame him, really? If I won a Pulitzer or a Nobel, I would be waving that shit in people’s faces all the time. Swag doesn’t get much better than that.
After goading the crowd into singing along for “Swimming Pools,” and inspiring some frenzied dancing with “King Kunta,” Kendrick brought out a guest: fellow Black Hippy rapper Jay Rock. Rock came out to rap his verse on Lamar’s “Money Trees” (the best rap song to feature a Beach House sample), and then stayed onstage to rap alongside Lamar for Black Panther’s standout cut “King’s Dead.” Unfortunately, they cut out the best part of the song: Lamar’s manic “I am Killmonger!” outro rap.
Lamar brought on another guest during his set: singer Zacari, who came out to sing the hook for “LOVE.” Kendrick got the audience to light up the stage with their cellphones for this number. The ol’ “sea of iPhone lights” is a concert crowd-work cliche that’s right up there with “Which Side’s The Loudest?”, but Kendrick is such a pro that he can make those cliches feel fresh.
After the one-two punch of “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” and “Alright,” Kendrick wrapped up his set by bringing out Schoolboy to do “X” before Lamar launched into “HUMBLE.” Perhaps inspired by Jay-Z and Kanye doing “Niggas In Paris” multiple times in a row during their Watch the Throne shows, Kendrick did “HUMBLE.” twice, looping back to the beginning, and bringing the rest of The Championship players out for a final bow. School gymnasium-style recognition banners were unfurled during “HUMBLE.”, giving each TDE player their own jersey number. Kendrick, clearly the Top Dog amongst Top Dawgs, was #2. You can’t get much more humble than that.
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Last Night: The Championship Tour with Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, SiR, and Lance Skiiiwalker at Ak-Chin Pavilion in Phoenix.
The Crowd: A veritable army of hip-hop lovers. Ak-Chin Pavilion was filled to the rafters with folks of all ages and races. And there was at least one T-shirt peddler there for every 20 people.
Overheard: Woman commiserating with her ladies in the will call line: “No SZA? And we can’t take our purses in?! This is not going to be our night, is it?”
Random Notebook Dump: Ak-Chin Pavilion needs to hire some traffic controllers or something, because getting out of their venue after a packed show is an absolute fucking nightmare. It took 40 minutes to get out of the lot, and I was part of the first wave of people who got out of the venue. I pity the poor bastards at the back of the line.