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TOP DAWG ENTERTAINMENT: THE CHAMPIONSHIP TOUR FT. KENDRICK LAMAR AND SZA At Madison Square Garden, Tuesday, March 29th, 2018, Reviewed

Top Dawg’s “The Championship Tour” at Madison Square Garden last night was so great that  you’d have to go back to Mega 97.9’s Summer Concert last August (here) to find an evening with such consistency, such precision, such tightness and such skill. It was so great it skipped over the half formed concept, wherein each performer was represented by a sport (only SZA used it to her advantage as a boxer, everybody else seemed baffled), it was so great that not a single act overstayed their welcome, and everybody, even the always irascible Schoolboy Q, had a terrific time.

But let’s start with the best: SZA. Yes, SZA. I haven’t misunderstood a performer more thoroughly since Lorde back in 2013.  I simply didn’t buy into her neo-R&B sound, it seemed both contrived and, certainly by her performance on SNL, pretentious. My problem is akin to a problem I have with some hip hop, it takes too long for me to hear it properly. It took last night to make me a fan of a woman I should have noted last year at the latest,  but man am I a fan now. Starting in a boxing ring (part of the championship concept), she rested legs spread akimbo  in a corner till “Supermodel” began to thunder through the speakers and, with a live guitarist (her member of the band foil), she sang it to a standstill, leaning on the ropes and testing the limits of her voice, from a Erykah Badu like low to a dog whistle falsetto and she ran the scales with absolute self assurance. The entire ten song strong set was culled entirely from CTRL, her 2017 breakthrough that I really, really should have noticed. The set was a fun, joyous homecoming for the Maplewood, New Jersey native. SZA dealt with her vocal problems early,  and the second on the bill to Kendrick Lamar  singer couldn’t find a way to not perform: this was a triumph for SZA some six years after she started.

SZA was so at ease on stage, very amusing, telling a story about going  to a party she didn’t want to be at and reached the conclusion “don’t be going to no party for no reason and always bring enough weed”  Then she launched into “Drew Barrymore,” yet another song I have no idea how I missed… how can you not hear that chorus?

“Warm enough for ya outside baby, yeah
Tell me that it’s warm enough here for ya
Is it warm enough for ya inside me, me, me, me?”

For all of “Drew Barrymore”‘s insecurities, the singer herself exudes absolute confidence and self-assurance, she prowled  from the back of the ring to the lip of the stage, she was a confident and enjoyable MC, and this is from a 27 year old who has already planned to retire. Much worse, as reported by Vulture she twitted after the show:  “My voice is permanently injured . Great !!!!!!!!!!!!! YAYYYYYUUYH!!!!!!!!’n”, she then follows up with a tweet that references an exam that may have gone wrong, “Tonight was the test . That settles that.” And finally, the singer expressed her disappointment at the situation, and requested space, “I jus wanna be left alone my priorities are fucked up . They been fucked up . I need space goodbye.” This is terrible news because she sounded just astonishing at MSG, on a night that found everybody on their A Game, SZA was the only woman and she was on a level all her own, when she reaches for her falsetto the entire audience melts and I really hope that she doesn’t have to stop singing. The thing about SZA is that she isn’t a brand, her songs of romantic malaise and sometimes liaisons become a world vision , she is a woman who defines us as we are not getting out of this world, if we must remain we must find a way to remain.

Yup, SZA ruled Top Dawg… but so did everybody else. Neo-soul man SIR (baseball is his sport) only had ten minutes, so he gave us three great soul songs sung with addictive exuberance, I’d been hoping Schoolboy Q would join him for “Something For…” but it was not to be. Ab-Soul, who hasn’t released anything since 2016, set was way too short. A song from Do What Thou Wilt., a song from Control System and a third I didn’t recognize and that was it. but it was perfect. Isaiah Rashad, another former Black Hippy, performed a terrific too short performance highlighted with an excellent “Free Lunch”. Jay Rock has a new album ready to drop and still wasted five minutes showing us a video, the other five minutes were much better. I’ve seen Schoolboy Q several times and it has always seemed to have a chip on his shoulder but last night from an opening “That Part” through 33 minutes of insanely energetic and 20K seater wide singalong “Collar Greens” and beyond, he looked back because the look forward hasn’t dropped yet. Maybe the second best set of the night.

Following SZA was the Pulitzer prize winning Kendrick Lamar (A race car drive in this championship season), and sure he was all that but SZA and Schoolboy and SHOUT OUT TO THE GUITARIST who made everybody sound like they’d left their “Pro Tools” at home. The best time I’ve seen Kendrick was not last years disappointing show at Barclay Center, but a year earlier at Governors Ball. This one was second. The problem was neither the rapping , nor the performances, but, again, the songs and also… I’ve seen him six times in five years and the skills don’t work on me as well if I was coming in fresh. With a real band actually on the stage, his MC skills were in question: he could learn a thing or two about how to SPEAK to his audience from SZA. He shouts, he declares, he is also a twit: this was not his first time playing MSG, he was there for the Grammys. Oh, and Schoolboy Q explaining how he hadn’t played New York City in a long, long time: either he isn’t aware the Bronx is part of New York City or he hated the set so much he forgot about it (a good set, I might add). Kendrick is the best rapper in the world, no doubt, and a beyond skillful rhymer, but he isn’t best on stage. One name that runs circles round him in concert? Danny Brown.

Did he ruin the evening? Not even close, he was great, SZA was the greatest of all time.

 

Grade: A

 

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