By Matthew Ismael Ruiz
On Wednesday night at ACL Live at the Moody Theater, the iTunes Festival at SXSW transformed into the Top Dawg Entertainment showcase. The management company, founded by Anthony “Top Dawg” Tiffith, had almost all of its artists—Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock, Sza, and Isaiah Rashad—on display, and with each set being streamed around the world on iTunes and VEVO, all eyes not Watching the Phone were on TDE that night.
Opener Isaiah Rashad certainly put the effort in, and served to warm the crowd up for Schoolboy Q, whose major-label debut LP Oxymoron entered the Billboard charts this week at No. 1. Donning a camo jacket and his trademark bucket hat, he performed with the swagger of a man who had long tired of being a No. 2. Frustrated his energy was not being returned at satisfactory levels, he chastised the crowd for not “turning up.”
“I know you’re here to see Kendrick,” he admitted, before adding, “It’s my f–king turn.”
Unlike his opening acts, Lamar had nothing to prove. A SXSW veteran, he had already navigated the sea of corporate locusts in years past, and this year it was his turn to play mentor. In between album cycles, Kendrick’s role in TDE at this point is to leverage his own brand to help create similar success for his compadres.
And at the iTunes Festival, a five-day concert event produced in the U.S. for the first time at this year’s South by Southwest music festival, an interesting technique is used to force attendees to sit through the opening sets—ticket holders are informed that their places are only guaranteed until 8pm—thirty minutes before the opening act takes the stage.
(iTunes Festival at SXSW)
So with a captive audience inside and hundreds of disappointed hopefuls outside on the street, Kendrick Lamar did not disappoint. His stage demeanor evokes the God Rakim Allah, whose stage presence was so immense that he could make crowds move without ever getting hyped. Performing, Lamar is confident assurance, personified.
He strolled out in a dark hoodie, commanding the large stage with ease as ghetto scenes played out on the futuristic transparent video screens that surrounded him. Alone onstage, he hit every syllable of every note, sounding as eloquent live as he does on record. He brought the crowd to a steady boil, working it like a veteran—first dividing them into different, competing sections, and making them repeat hooks to challenge them to get louder. By the time he got to the crowd-favorite “Backseat Freestyle,” the audience was already whipped into a frenzy, but wants to make sure it’s perfect, so he restarts the intro again. They’re hype, in the palm of his hand , and he hasn’t even broken a sweat.
Jay Rock joined Lamar onstage for “Money Trees,” off of 2012’s good kid m.A.A.d city and growled “CAN I GET SOME” at the crowd before segueing into his own joint, “Hood Gone Love It.” His appearance injected some energy into the set—he barked his lyrics and stomped all over the stage, serving as an excellent foil to Lamar. Animated, hyped, and peaking the levels on his mic, Jay Rock was also often out of breath. While Lamar wisely paced himself without a hype man, Jay Rock had the luxury of taking every other word off, leaning on Kendrick to get him through his own verses as he lost his breath.
(iTunes Festival at SXSW)
The crowd-pleasing set lasted more than an hour, and featured all the hits (Backseat Freestyle, Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe, Swimming Pools), some of the best songs from Section.80 (“A.D.H.D.”, “HiiPoWEr”), and even a couple of guest verses (Fredo Santana’s “Jealous,” A$AP Rocky’s “F–kin’ Problems”). He made a point to shout out Texas for “being down since day 1,” and to tell his fans at the end of his encore to “believe the words when I say I WILL BE BACK.”
Kendrick Lamar is a star, the star. What remains to be seen is if his star is bright enough to lend some shine to his less talented colleagues. And while it may not look much like festivals of years past, SXSW 2014 is the perfect laboratory for such an experiment. At some point, South by Southwest stopped being about an unsigned band getting a deal and became more about brands signing bands to deals. Label A&Rs don’t go to find new talent, they go to promote their current roster. In that climate, it makes sense to have TDE take over the iTunes Festival at SXSW. Because as far as rosters go, with Kendrick and Schoolboy topping the charts, it’s hard to top TDE.