It’s a testament to Kendrick Lamar’s industry power right now that Apple essentially gave him and his crew an entire evening to themselves on the second night of the inaugural iTunes Festival at SXSW.
Lamar’s crew/label conglomerate Top Dawg Entertainment filled ever nook of the evening’s festivities, from the three booked acts to the guest stars. Though not necessarily on the same scale, it conjured up memories of Kurt Cobain curating an entire main stage day at the 1992 Reading Festival—a huge cultural entity acknowledging the overwhelming impact of a single star.
Of course, Lamar wouldn’t have arrived at this point if he wasn’t a stellar live performer, and he brought the same kind of energy and execution in Austin that he brought during his run as one of the top festival stars of last summer. He did most of those shows with a band, but on Wednesday night he was backed only by a DJ, and the narrowing of the sound made his material feel more claustrophobic in some ways. He benefits from that kind of intensity though:
Staples like the set-closing “Swimming Pools (Drank)” and the shout-along banger “m.A.A.d. City” found an entirely new dimension, though Lamar had a bit of trouble keeping the enthusiastic crowd engaged for the duration of his hour-long set. He’s an incredibly polished performer, but when he is given somebody to play off of, he allows himself to find an extra gear, which is why the best moment of the night came when fellow Black Hippy MC Jay Rock dropped in for the back end of “The Art of Peer Pressure” and then for Rock’s own “Hood Gone Love It.” Rock isn’t the same level of performer as Lamar—he’s mostly just shouty—but he provided an excellent foil. Same goes for female MC/soul singer SZA, who provided slightly off-kilter vocal assistance on “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Poetic Justice.”
It was a little surprising that Schoolboy Q never joined Lamar on stage, but then again, Schoolboy’s grimy charisma probably would have unfairly buried Kendrick. Fresh off a chart-topping debut for his new album Oxymoron, Schoolboy spent his 40 minutes stalking the stage, keeping his head down, and generally making a case for a revival of Death Row-records esque gangsta (which the crowd seems to hunger for—the reaction that the set break DJ got for playing Tupac’s “California Love” was jarring and wonderful). The new stuff banged supreme, and Schoolboy has a powerful grasp over it, but he topped out early with a run through “Hands on the Wheel,” his trippy ode to the amorous effects of marijuana and beer.
New Top Dawg member Isaiah Rashad opened the show, and while he doesn’t have the same name or song recognition as his labelmates, he still carved out a place for himself as a slightly stankier version of his two cohorts. The Tennessee native doesn’t quite embrace the Southern bounce in his DNA, but the tracks he performed off his recently-released Cilvia Demo EP throbbed and twisted like a hybrid of Memphis drone and No Limit chest-pounding.
In the end, it was a good night for Top Dawg, who took their opportunities and probably converted some non-believers. At the bottom of the evening, Lamar came back for a one-song encore, which angered a handful of constituents who felt the show was too short. But maybe he’s already learned the most important showbiz rule: always leave them wanting more. Or maybe he was just following his friend—at the end of his set, Schoolboy Q announced, “I’m about to go watch the Jay and Kanye show.”