There are moments you wait for your whole life. You strive for them, putting in hours of practice like an athlete seeking total mastery of their sport in order to one day win a professional championship. For Kendrick Lamar and his Top Dawg Entertainment cohorts, that moment felt like Friday night at the Forum in Inglewood, California, as the arena where LA’s beloved Showtime Lakers once won their NBA titles lit up from the flashlights of thousands of cell phones at Kendrick’s request.
It may not have been their 1989 Larry O’Brien trophy, but it feels like Kendrick, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, and Schoolboy Q — along with their non-Los Angeles-raised labelmates SZA and Isaiah Rashad — earned something that night in the iconic building where Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar solidified their legends: The enduring love of a generation, and a night no one would likely forget.
The TDE Championship tour largely lived up to its athletics-themed rollout. The screens behind the artists flashed custom, illustrated trading cards featuring each performer as they took the stage. Their illustrated avatars each reflected their athletic themes; basketball for Jay Rock, Formula 1 Racing for Kendrick, and so on. From the parody training montage video announcement to the stage design for each act to their wardrobe, TDE reiterated the idea of championships and winning through athletic achievement, mirroring their numerous wins in their musical endeavors.
In 2017, SZA and Kendrick Lamar were both nominated for Grammys, with Kendrick cleaning up at the 2018 ceremony. While SZA didn’t pick up any of the awards she was nominated for, the backlash at her reverse sweep suggested a “people’s champion” status that none of the winners could claim.
Then, earlier this year, Kendrick achieved what no other rapper has done before him: Win a Pulitzer Prize for Music for DAMN., shifting the conversation surrounding hip-hop yet again, after he’d already done so with his previous works, Good Kid, MAAD City and To Pimp A Butterfly.
In the Forum on Friday night, both artists’ achievements were hinted to, subtly in SZA’s case, boldly by Kendrick. While SZA played up the people’s champ theme with her boxing ring stage appointments and boxer’s garb complete with a satin boxing robe over her TDE-branded trunks, Kendrick flexed mightily in front of a massive billboard reading “Pulitzer Kenny” with his Formula 1 racing suit proclaiming his pole position in the rap game.
The theme even extended to the stage, as the primary accouterment to his set was an actual racing car. It didn’t take him long to come out of the top half of his racing suit, as he delivered uproarious renditions of hits spanning his catalog, culminating in a 17,000-person singalong to “Humble.” During his set, he commanded the crowd to light up their cell phones, turning the Forum into an indoor constellation paying homage to how far he’s come.
There was a point, not too long ago, when a single phone could have lit up the entire room at some of the stages he played in Los Angeles while on the come-up. His grind, focus, and intensity paid off though — the lit phones illuminated the interior of the historic dome almost as brightly as the house lights, before he closed his set with his Black Panther soundtrack single, “All The Stars.” It was a fitting end to the show, even as TDE enters its next phase of dominance.
From the sounds of it, that next phase will again heavily figure Hoover Street dynamo, Schoolboy Q. At the close of his set, he took care to mention that his next album is “ready,” to an elated response from the crowd. His set featured the unlikely addition of a golf cart, the sport he was featured playing in the preview video for the tour. He good-naturedly jostled the crowd for singing along to his gangland-themed rhymes and jibed them over their raucous feedback to his tales of running wild as youngster in LA’s “50’s” neighborhood and John Muir High School.
SZA’s undercard received perhaps the strongest feedback of the night besides Kendrick. As she danced both in and around her boxing ring, she continued to recount stories of how she’d come to write the fan-favorite hits from her out-of-nowhere runaway success, CTRL. More than a few of the fans around me sang along to every word of “Go Gina,” “The Weekend,” and “Doves In The Wind.”
When Isaiah Rashad appeared from backstage to perform his verse from “Pretty Little Birds” and some snippets of his own material, the energy level ratcheted up another several notches, but the biggest responses were reserved for SZA’s confessional admissions of her long grind to get to where she is today.
That theme of hard work, dedication, blood, sweat, and tears was the glue binding the concert together and ultimately, why TDE works as a label, as a crew, and as a family. More than anything else, through all the squabbles and public drama they’ve endured — or used to promote projects — the house that Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith built stands strong because each of the artists he’s brought together over the last decade knows their role on the team.
They’re all willing to put in the hours, doing the dirty work in the gym — or studio — that translates to wins on the “court.” Friday at the Forum, TDE may not have been competing against any other teams, throwing balls through hoops, or fighting a ticking clock to put points on the scoreboard, but they were out to prove something. They want to be mentioned among the greats, like the legendary sportsmen who played out of the Forum in the glory days of their youth.
They earned their championship, but they want something bigger than that — they want to be a dynasty. The grind has just begun.