What a difference a year makes. As cliché as the notion may sound, there was no escaping it Saturday night at Cali Christmas, the annual sampling of the year’s radio rainmakers presented by L.A.’s Power 106 FM.
The night’s headliners -- Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar -- also appeared at last year’s show, but most of the acts who took the stage at Anaheim’s Honda Center came armed with a new-found prowess.
“I signed my record deal February 2012. Since then, I put out two albums and been on five tours,” 2 Chainz boasted toward the end of his set. “And I’ve been Grammy nominated.”
The 36-year-old born Tauheed Epps has spent the year stealing opening slots and festival crowds with his slew of unapologetically bawdy strip club anthems and high-profile guest verses. And while he might not be lauded by critics, his music is a mainstay on radio and rap charts.
Where 2 Chainz opts to cash in on his ubiquity, Cole is running a longer race toward establishing a legacy.
Cole showed his bid for greatness earlier this year when he moved the release of his highly anticipated sophomore set, “Born Sinner,” to directly compete with Kanye West. It was a bold play from the Jay Z protege, and he eventually beat West in sales.
During his 45-minute set, he tore through tracks from “Sinner,” and his performance showed his determination to make a move to arenas. Backed by one of the better-sounding backing bands of the night, Cole reveled in the crowd's affection, beaming as he led singalongs with the crowd for both his radio hits and mixtape offerings.
Last year, Lamar headlined Cali Christmas just months after he released his acclaimed major-label debut, “good kid, m.A.A.d city.” This year, however, Lamar arrived as the Grammys' latest darling, racking up seven nominations (including best new artist and album of the year) in a headlining slot with Black Hippy cohorts Schoolboy Q, Jay Rock and Ab-Soul that continued a yearlong victory lap.
Lamar played a number of high-profile hometown shows this year – he also opened for West and also headlined Rock the Bells and the inaugural BET Experience – but his hero's welcome on Saturday further spoke to the power of his status.
Earlier this year Lamar dropped an alarm-ringing guest verse on Big Sean’s cut “Control.” The acid-spewing verse showed Lamar crowning himself "King of New York," and placing most of his contemporaries on notice that he was on a quest for dominance.
At Cali Christmas, Lamar didn’t rehash the verse. Instead, he let a guest spot from Sean “Diddy” Combs, who performed “It’s All About the Benjamins” and the remix to Future’s “Same Damn Time,” prove he’s earned an endorsement from one of the gatekeepers of the East Coast. And pulling off the moment in his hometown only further underscored how high Lamar's stock has risen.
The holiday showcase didn’t, however, come without a dose of naughtiness.
A brawl broke out between a dozen or so concertgoers between two rows as different sets of attendees lunged fists at one another, with security scrambling to intervene and nearby fans watching in shock.
It was a startling sight, but Schoolboy Q snapped the fans back to the onstage action when he emerged to the deliver the bouncy, street anthem “Collard Greens.”