by Devin M. O’Toole
In its third installment, Jay Z and Budweiser’s Made In America tour has reached dizzying heights. The Brooklyn rap mogul has expanded his Labor Day format to Los Angeles this year and has quickly become Black America’s answer to Perry Farrell’s Lollapalooza.
The sprawling event capped off the summer with breakneck euphoria, master class performances and a memorable rain-soaked Sunday. Although the Jigga Man did not grace the stage this year, his rap brethren left a blueprint for the hip hop faithful.
BAS, Queens based rapper and J.Cole cohort, laced through the early day haze while coolly crafting a dynamic set at the smaller Skate Park Stage. He made way for OCD: Moosh and Twist, the high-energy local legends who have hung around just long enough, that the frat-rap moniker that has been their albatross slowly is looking more like a well-suited badge of honor. Half Haverford High School, half Friends Select, things are looking positive for the duo, looking to put Philly on the map.
Later, Big Daddy Kane took to the Rocky Stage in a pimped out suit and fedora. The Brooklyn MC can still slay. “Ain’t No Half Steppin” stands the test of time, and at 45, Dark Gable and Eminem remain the most accessibly fast-rap tongues in the game. J. Cole was also present and has, for years now, treated Philadelphia to an unmatched level of showmanship and consistency.
The standout video performance of the night was clearly Cole’s rendition of newly penned elegy “Be Free”. It was a fitting opener to close a racially charged summer. As Cole waxed poetic, a video montage of police brutality videos, from Civil Rights Era to Eric Garner and Michael Brown memorials, played for the mournful. The gifted rapper had time for his hits off of Born Sinner, but the dedication put the post-ironic nationalism of the event, into a soulful and unifying perspective.
Rap wise, the night belonged to Mr. Kanye West. In front of a towering red monolith, the tortured and at times, painfully public rap persona played it perfectly. Rapping behind a bejeweled gimp mask, a character of West’s, putting him now in the pantheon of Bowie and Madonna, he oozed luxury and excess, but always seemed shrouded in self-aware guilt. The metallic shrill of “Black Skinhead” opened the night–West in good spirits, looking hulking, gasped in agony. The mask came off for “New Slaves” and it wouldn’t be a Kanye West concert, if the man didn’t have something to say. The South Park joke came up once again, but the sincerity of his words, his inter-racial relationship to Kim Kardashian and his time spent in the studio “til 3am every night,” showed a madman bordering sincere genius. He pleaded with the crowd, “this is not a joke”.
Day 2 played host to cast of MC goofballs–a respite from the heavy-handed politics and macabre of the festival’s opening night. YG, an LA rapper with Bay Area flare put the Left Coast in high-esteem, and let the Philly crowd know that just because we didn’t get Kendrick Lamar, we more than made up for it with new boy YG. I’m not sure if he got any girls to take their shirts off, liked he mentioned a few times, but he did get his shots of Henny in. His beats were buoyant, yet cutting; DJ Mustard will be a household name come 2015.
Green-haired, gap-toothed jackal, Danny Brown also played, albeit 20 minutes late. After a barrage of EDM and trap instrumentals, a style Brown perfectly showcases on his album ‘Old,’ the Detroit pottymouth finally emerged. His candy-coated blunt raps highlighted a dreary day. The clouds loomed overhead, a nebulous mushroom of sticky icky in Muggydelphia.
The rain showered college DJ Girl Talk. Pittsburgh’s Greg Gillis and North Philadelphia rapper Freeway teamed for a banger of a show. The Steel City and Ice City compliment the hell out of each other. The laptop connoisseur hasn’t missed a step and mashing “Bandz A Make Her Dance” and “Fancy” seems hilariously effortless for the shirtless party starter. To the select few that made it to the on-stage dance party, you’re all lucky sons of bitches.
Pharrell, the poster child for happiness, sure reminded everyone of his impressive catalogue. His work with the Clipse, Snoop Dogg, Robin Thicke and Daft Punk provided a summer soundtrack and killer dance party to a reciprocatingly love drunk crowd. He made sure people knew they had Monday off. His respect for Philadelphia was palpable, claiming that the best musician’s come from our great city and that he played with many of them and respects them immensely. Real recognized real and we should all put Skateboard P firmly up there with the hip-pop elite.
Jay Z’s pedigree in the rap field is unquestioned, but how was he catering to the indie, EDM and punk fanbases?
His talent selection impressed. It seems like a summer music festival isn’t complete without a few familiar faces. Chromeo, Spoon, Cut Snake and AWOLNATION have become those favorites. All sounded polished, professional and can be easily slotted as festival staples for years to come. Local acts Vactioner, NOTHING, Cruisr, The Menzingers and Pissed Jeans gave the Philly indie/punk scene hope for some damn recognition. Perpetually cloaked in Brooklyn’s shadow, the Brotherly Love underdogs came to ignite their neighbors. Philly might have the hardest punk scene in the nation and Jay gave our loudmouths a soapbox.
Speaking of brotherly love, MIA3 seemed to be a bit of a sausage fest. Grimes, aka Claire Boucher of Vancouver, BC, was the only headlining female performer on either of the two main stages. This only enhanced Grimes’ set. The Canadian enchanted the Americans, with her Goth-pop, electro-R&B je ne sais quoi–she’s truly dominating her own lane. Everything from the Funkadelic era ski boots, to the coy dance moves, to the electric Blue Kool-Aid hairstyle, the RocNation signee justified her indie to haute couture cache.
The lack of femininity, strangely no Beyonce or Solange, is an issue. The festival also strangely lacked those bands that have truly made it out of obscurity. The National played an exceptional set– “Bloodbuzz Ohio” and “Pink Rabbits” were glorious and Bryce Dessner, despite his writerly unkempt scruff, had the festival’s best singing voice. Spoon has bounced back nicely (you wish Modest mouse could do the same;) everything off of They Want My Soul sounded crisp, turning back the clock to a sound we’ve come to love. The festival could have used a hushed, folk touch, possibly a Father John Misty or Sun Kil Moon.
Tiesto and birthday cake throwing, Steve Aoki are today’s hitmakers. Each headling the Liberty Stage. The youth seems to demand glitch over glam, knobs over guitars, and drops over solos. It’s hard to decipher the nuance, but techno, electro, big-house and trance have transcended the basements onto the beaches of Ibiza, and Philly became its next victim–if you were looking to get wasted, the electrocutioning delivered. Wipe the icing off your face and bask in the bleeding symphony.
But Sunday night closed with a touch of southern comfort. Tour hounds, Kings of Leon returned. Okay, so they sold out. Okay, they may be rock’s last fleeting and inflated hope with Arctic Monkeys riding their coattails, love it or hate it (you better recognize it), the gospel dog and pony show made America, and it’s not going anywhere. There was speculation that drummer Nathan Followill wouldn’t play due to a recent rib injury, when their tour bus driver stopped short to avoid a pedestrian. Nathan was there, alongside his family as the Tennessee rockers warmed a wet crowd. The pluvious day broke out for “Use Somebody”, “Molly’s Chambers” and a slew of jams off of their newest album, Mechanical Bull. But the standout of the night was “Radioactive”, a song that was lambasted for its creepy, little kid re-appropriation video back in 2008. It’s become a beacon for festival adoration–the pulsing rhythm just works and that groove might have brought back some Youth and Young Manhood fanboys.
Made In America logistically works on most levels. Four stages just close enough. The flag lined parkway was clean, the city looked great despite the torrential rain delay, the people were out and about taking their pseudo-patriotism to the nation’s birthplace. Two days, with Labor Day served for nursing a Budweiser induced hangover is pretty much America in a nutshell. I talked to plenty of people from New York, so the thing has reach. Jay, I hope you and the wife are doing well, keep on coming back to Philly, because from my point of view, it looks like we made it in America.