Top Dawg Entertainment, Featuring Kendrick Lamar and SZA, Is Running Laps Around the Competition

Top Dawg Entertainment is in a league of its own. On top of curating a phenomenal soundtrack for the box-office-shattering Black Panther film, the West Coast label’s most prized artist, Kendrick Lamar, is redefining what it means to be a superstar rapper in 2018 and is piling up achievements some never thought possible — like the Pulitzer Prize for music he received last month.

SZA’s debut studio album, CTRL, earned platinum status, five Grammy nominations and placement on countless year-end lists. Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock remain the label’s OG anchors who always deliver when their numbers are called, and a crop of promising newcomers such as Sir, Lance Skiiiwalker and Zacari show the future is even brighter for the formidable label.

To celebrate, TDE brought its elite roster of talent to the newly named Dos Equis Pavilion in Dallas on Thursday for The Championship Tour, and the artists ran circles around the competition. Championship banners hung from the stage, highlighting the crew’s accomplishments, and the night never ran low on sports references, like the trading card animations that accompanied each set. Each artist took to the stage with a different sport, almost as if to say TDE is running the game, the whole game and every game.

With a Formula One car branded by TDE parked to Lamar's right and two checkered flags to his left, the rapper’s headlining set was a far cry from the intense, stoic Damn Tour of 2017. The mood was lighter and celebratory, and there was more casual banter, but the rapping was just as nimble and crisp as he worked through his storied catalog with hits like “DNA.,” “Element.” and “King Kunta.”

At Lamar's performances, even as his songs transition from traditional radio hits like “LOYALTY.” and “Backseat Freestyle” to more politically charged anthems like “Alright” and “XXX,” the crowd’s enthusiasm never wavers. It’s unclear if it's a sign of a more progressive generation or one more pad on Lamar’s extraordinary accomplishments. As Lamar’s legend grows, so will his fan base, and it’s an odd thing to hear what he considers a day-one fan these days. When he asked where those fans were and told them he had something for them, he only reached as far back as 2012’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and disregarded material from the seminal Section.80 and Overly Dedicated.

But it kind of makes sense. Just like sports, music is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, and new stars emerge in the same way new hits take precedence over the old. So while many may have thought Schoolboy Q would play direct support to Lamar, SZA earned those minutes with an amazing 2017. The 27-year-old superstar-in-the-making delivered an affecting and personal set mostly made of tracks from her wonderful coming-of-age debut album, CTRL. Her live vocals were just as sharp as on record, and she seemed more comfortable onstage than the artists before her dancing across the sprawling space after leaving her boxing ring decor.

It’d be surprising if anyone arrived to the show not knowing what to expect from Lamar, but it was a little obvious that the crowd, mostly the men, didn’t have a connection with SZA as she took the stage. But when her set was over, the audience was in full agreement that she’s campaigning for MVP.

It’s clear TDE makes artists earn minutes in the rotation. Schoolboy Q, of course, got his 40-minute set complete with fan favorites like “THat Part,” “Studio” and “Man of the Year,” but stalwart roster act Ab-Soul was relegated to a two-song set, just like newcomers Sir and Lance Skiiiwalker.

TDE fans were left wondering where the hell Isaiah Rashad is. In 2014, Rashad was on a trajectory similar to SZA’s with a critically acclaimed mixtape debut, but since then, inconsistency has plagued the artist along with personal issues that allegedly almost got him removed from the label’s roster. Leading up to the tour, Rashad was included in the promotional material, but his only appearance on the tour was in Los Angeles. It’s possible Rashad is busy gearing up for his new album, which he says will release this summer, but fans are still asking where he is, and TDE is oddly vague about it.

Despite that one cloud of mystery, The Championship Tour is one of the most complete tours in existence. From the hilarious promotional video announcing the tour to the sharply designed TDE- and Nike-branded merch that looks a step above other merch to the tightly choreographed, star-studded three-hour performance, the label lived up to its name as the Top Dawg.

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