In 2017, Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar lorded over the Empire Polo Club grounds, haughtily conducting a massive crowd from the main stage at the Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival with his brand new bangers from DAMN., his groundbreaking, Grammy-nominated, third studio album. Now, a year later, he did the same at Coachella’s first Friday, despite not even being billed to appear at the massive annual music fest, thanks to some of his closest associates and Black Panther.
Even though he didn’t complete the trifecta of expected appearances for his collaboration with The Weeknd, “Pray For Me,” his presence was felt in his absence from the stage, especially after he popped up to perform alongside both Vince Staples and SZA. Yet, even without his physical embodiment on stage at the moment, he impacted The Weeknd’s set — and Coachella at large — in other ways. Kendrick’s non-appearance for The Weeknd felt like even more of a surprise than his emergence from backstage to deliver his volcanic flurry of rhymes on “Yeah Right” to close Vince Staples’ incredible set.
The force of his personality is so dominant that the assembled crowd’s disappointment when he failed to return to the stage for The Weeknd’s opener was palpable. How could it not be, when the PBR&B singer-turned-pop star led off his set with the smash from the excellent Black Panther soundtrack? As one of the only three songs from the album to appear in the film, the track’s cultural impact can’t be overstated — simply put, it’s one of the most recognizable Kendrick Lamar appearances in the world (incidentally, all three of those songs also featured one of Coachella’s top headliners).
It’s telling that The Weeknd chose to start his set with that moment, almost as if getting it out of the way. Without the building anticipation of a Kendrick Lamar verse that wasn’t coming, he was able to ease into his own solid catalog of hits, which the audience was more than willing to accommodate once they’d accepted the absence of King Kendrick from the set. That’s just the effect that he’s had on the rap game, on music, since his ascent. Everyone, no matter how big or small, has to make room for him. Abel whipped through hits from Starboy and House Of Balloons and even “The Crew” from Drake’s masterful Take Care (I was disappointed that a sizable portion of the crowd seemed elated to sing the “room full of n—as” line unabashedly and full-forced), somehow making his evolutionary twists and turns sound unified as if he didn’t drastically change his sound over the course of his intriguingly chameleonic career. He saved the My Dear Melancholy, standouts for last, an amusing gambit that allowed him to both focus his set on hits and leave the crowd feeling emotionally devastated to end it.
Making room was barely a consideration for SZA’s set — after all, the pair shares a close-knit label which SZA took care to describe as a family during her literally campy and outdoorsy performance. The CTRL singer took to the stage with an Airstream and an actual, roaring campfire center stage, strutting and gamboling from side to side while trading her “All The Stars” choruses with Kendrick’s chest-beating verses to close out after a slinky rendition of “Doves In The Wind.” Kendrick wasn’t her only guest; fellow labelmate Isaiah Rashad delivered his obligatory appearance for “Pretty Little Birds,” and 18-year-old Ohio rapper Trippie Redd bopped out to rip through his own grungy single while SZA bounced on a hidden trampoline. For the most part, it was her alone — unless you count the clips of the titular heroine from “Drew Barrymore” playing on the screens behind her. She even took Kendrick’s lead in banning pro photographers from her set.
Meanwhile, Vince Staples set completely bypassed any sense of whimsy and got straight to the blunt, prickly bombast the Long Beach rapper has become infamous for. Appearing on the empty stage alone and clad in — of all things — a bulletproof vest, he challenged the crowd to make more noise, prowling his pulpit in front of a massive wall of screens displaying everything from film clips to Sprite commercials in conjunction with his ruthless dissections of politics, race, and poverty in his hometown by the sea. A year ago, I couldn’t have imagined Staples as a main-stager; his delivery is too forceful, his sound too jangly and jagged. That was the pre-Wakandan world, where his futuristic, third-world cynicism was too advanced. Now, the possibility of a Black gangster rapper spitting sci-fi missives from a bombed-out future feels even more prophetic, like Killmonger got his hands on a time machine and took it back to 1991.
Elsewhere, smaller stages delivered varying quality performances. Daniel Caesar and Kali Uchis both seemed a little too sleepy for their outdoor stage, but their fans seemed pretty into their performances. Caesar especially probably picked up more than a few new ones thanks to his energetic and impressive vocal performance, while Uchis looked and sounded a little unseasoned, falling into a habit of hypnotically belly dancing during the instrumental breaks of her Isolation songs. Either her album is too new or she needs to add an element to her show because the natives seemed restless until Tyler, The Creator appeared to deliver a much-need shot in the arm with “After The Storm.”
One performer who certainly owned his time and made a strong case for his continued rise through the ranks of pop music stardom was Kyle. Before his set, I wasn’t sure that he was a main-stager either. Sure, “iSpy” was a smash, but his tracks haven’t exactly burned up the Hot 100, and he doesn’t even have too many recent videos. But then he got on stage complete with a red, white, and blue shiny suit after a cleverly put together video clip that embraced both his nerdy sense of humor and the sense of how big the moment truly was for him and blew me — and the rest of the crowd — away. Then there was the ultimate co-sign as Chance The Rapper appeared to perform alongside the burgeoning Ventura star, who debuted a couple of the songs from his long-awaited debut album. They are as fun and catchy as anything he’s done already; if they catch on the way “iSpy” did last year, it will be a long time before you can escape the sunny personality of SuperDuperKyle.
It’s interesting to think that once upon a time, the same could be said of Kendrick Lamar. There was a time he was as unsure of himself playing an afternoon Coachella stage set just like Kyle. It’s amazing and incredible that he could become one of the mightiest presences at the festival, capable of shutting down even the main stage with an album barely a few days old at the time. It’s simply astonishing that he can do the same even without an album to promote, appearing for every expected guest verse, or even getting his name on the flyer. He has become King Kendrick, speaking to the possibilities inherent in growth, the potential of every performer to become a cultural fixture, and his own continued dominance of Coachella, rap, and music as a whole. Long live the king.