Kendrick is king, Sza is queen, but where were ‘All the Stars’?

I only have one complaint with the Top Dawg Entertainment’s Championship Tour, which rocked the Austin360 Amphitheater on Friday night, but it’s a big one. So let’s get it out of the way up front: Kendrick Lamar and Sza performed on the same stage on the same night, roughly three months after “Black Panther” became a definitive cultural touchstone for this moment in time and they did not play the film’s hit single, “All the Stars.”

According to the fine folks at setlist.fm, they have been playing the song on this tour. They’ve been placing it where it belongs, near the end, as part of Kendrick’s climactic closer. But for whatever reason, they didn’t play the song on this date.

Now I get that sometimes artists change up their playlists. Sometimes you don’t get to hear your favorite song. But this is a serious omission. Like if Prince came to town on the “Purple Rain” tour and didn’t play “Purple Rain.”  I felt legitimately cheated of my experience of swaying to the soaring chorus on a beautiful spring night in Texas, which, let’s be honest, is the closest we mere mortals are going to get to Wakandan royalty.

So that was a drag.

Other than that the show was phenomenal — further proof, in case we needed any, that Kendrick Lamar is the most important hip-hop artist of his generation right now and Sza is one of the most exciting new R&B singers.

The striking visuals of a glaring red line that morphed into a menacing whir of red and blue police lights that gave way to the bold graffiti scrawl “Pulitzer Kenny” underlined the potent statement of self in set opener “DNA.” The live band in the wings put a wall of funk at his back for a neck-breaking version of “King Kunta.” We need the uprise anthem “Alright” more than ever these days, and when he brought out Zacari to guest on “Love” it was simply divine.

He dug into his back catalog to indulge his day one fans with “Swimming Pools,” “Backseat Freestyle” and “Money Trees.” Then he reminded us that “M.A.A.D. City” is easily one of the best hip-hop songs of the last decade with a ferocious live version.

The climax was “Humble.” He led the crowd into the song then dropped out and allowed a crowd of thousands of people in unison to take over. They rapped every word, capturing every breath, every nuance, a capella for several verses. It was particularly stunning when you consider that the song is only a year old. Seeing the way it’s already seeped into so many people’s lives in such a profound way made it all the more moving when he followed up with his own version. 

Sza was wonderful in her own way, too. The power in her music comes from a perfect balance of sexy swagger and raw vulnerability. Songs like “Supermodel” and “Normal Girl” ache as much as they posture. She introduced the latter by shouting out the awkward girls, saying, “If that awkward (expletive) is real, you just have to live it.”

She’s so charming and genuine, it’s a joy to watch her inhabit her work.  And she was effusive in her love for Austin, a city she credits with launching her career, saying she was signed by Top Dawg Entertainment after performing at South by Southwest.

“Thank you for having me and thank you for being my birthplace,” she said after closing her set with a steamy version of “Weekend.”

Overall, it was a beautiful night. Undoubtedly, we witnessed the current generation of hip-hop greats. We just wish there had been a few more stars.  

 

 

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