Staples Center held a hell of a hip-hop concert Saturday night, one that through nearly four hours delivered some of Southern California's most accomplished rappers both young and older, as well as a singer on the cusp of superstardom.
The concert was part of cable station BET's new BET Experience weekend of shows that culminates Sunday evening with its annual music awards, and the stage of the sold-out arena held L.A. MCs Schoolboy Q, Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg, as well as South Bay-born vocalist Miguel. Combined, they made a convincing argument that the city's hip-hop and R&B scene is at another creative peak -- even if North Carolina rapper J. Cole waltzed onto visiting turf and nearly stole the show with his charm.
But such an upset couldn't have happened on an evening that saw scream-inducing cameos by luminaries and upstarts including Dr. Dre, Warren G, Wale, Wiz Khalifa and Trinidad James. Nor on an evening in which sharp, funky, expertly engineered live bands backed all but one of the night's performers, and turned what could have been a laptop-DJ-backed nod-fest into a genuine musical experience.
In fact, the night's biggest takeaway was how tightly wound and perfectly practiced each performance was. This wasn't an evening of canned beats and improvised chatter. These were the Professionals, and they brought out the best in each other.
Cole, his eyes filled with wonder, captured the vibe within the erstwhile home of the Lakers as the crowd bellowed, asking, "Is this how Kobe be feeling?" Probably, yes.
The highlights were many, even if the night was slow to take flight. The bill was excessively prompt, resulting in Schoolboy Q taking the stage at 7 p.m. to a half-empty arena. Best known for his 2012 anthem with New Yorker ASAP Rocky, "Hands on the Wheel," the Crenshaw High grad is part of the same Top Dawg Entertainment roster as Lamar, who guested on Schoolboy's new single "Collard Greens." Being first on the bill is a drag, but Schoolboy's quick set certainly lubricated the crowd.
Miguel was the only non-rapper on the bill, but his blistering gig felt like the main event while it was happening. The San Pedro crooner wore his hair coiffed high and held his heart in his hand.
The ladies swooned during "Sure Thing." Miguel grabbed his microphone stand like he was dipping a lover during a slow dance for "Do You Like Drugs?" Then Miguel and band drifted into Bob Marley's "Stir It Up," pushing the crowd in a new direction for a few measures before returning to his own song. Elsewhere, he tore through a few verses of Tupac's "I Get Around."
The takeaway: Miguel seems destined to entertain on a mass scale, and he made the giant Staples Center feel like a dinner club.
Cole has just released a new album, "Born Sinner," that nearly outsold Kanye West's newest, but he's not nearly as surprising or daring as the Chicagoan -- even if this gig helped explain why Cole's got a devoted audience. He's smart, personable, has a conversational delivery and gives them what they want: well-crafted and enunciated, if lyrically insular, slices of life.
The announcement that a new lyrical boss was in town, though, was delivered by Lamar. Through his instant L.A. classic "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe," which was rapped word-for-word by probably half the 20,000 fans, he outlined his problems and solutions. In "The Recipe," he celebrated his city by listing his favorite things about it: "women, weed and weather."
In a memorable a cappella moment, Lamar quieted his six-piece band to do "I Am," a declaration of intent that showcased a man whose internal voice is as biting, witty and eloquent as his external voice is passionate and nuanced.
Lamar was joined by compadre Jay Rock, but missing alongside him during his set were fellow Black Hippy members Schoolboy Q and Ab-Soul. The absence was probably due to time constraints, but on a night that should have become a Top Dawg declaration of victory, it's unfortunate that they didn't join Lamar's party.
How was Snoop? As funky and charismatic as ever, someone whose history is marked by so many impressive tracks that he could pull a Bruce Springsteen and go all night.
His guests were many, and included the man who helped put him on the map in the early 1990s, Dr. Dre, who arrived to a king's welcome for "Nothing But a G Thang" and Dre's "Next Episode."
Also landing onstage at one point or another: members of his Dogg Pound posse; longtime peer Warren G (and pictured on the video screen above the late Nate Dogg) for "Ain't No Fun"; Wiz Khalifa for his and Snoop's fun-loving -- if spineless -- "Young, Wild and Free," fast-track pick for 2014 fame Problem and rappers Future, Trinidad James and Ace Hood.
The night ended too abruptly -- 11 p.m. sharp, which is like noon in Snoop-time. In a better world, he would have gathered everyone together onstage to jam for another few hours, and allow time for proper applause for such a satisfying and seamless night of rhythm, singing and rhyme.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit