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.