Live: Hot 97's Summer Jam

rain.JPGNow you gon' need a boat

Hot 97 Summer Jam Giants Stadium June 3, 2007

The big story from this year's Hot 97 Summer Jam isn't going to be any huge guest-appearance or new declaration of beef; it's going to be the rain. It rained all day today, starting around the time I got into the stadium and never letting up, not even when I got off the subway in Brooklyn an hour and a half after leaving. I've been at outside concerts in the rain before, but it's always come in quick little bursts or brief and inconsequential showers. Tonight, though, it just kept pissing down for hours and hours, soaking thousands of people to the bone, depleting the crowd and halfway smothering a few of the big moments. Bits and pieces of the bleachers at Giants Stadium are under overhangs, but most of us were left exposed and freezing, and it didn't help that stadium security confiscated umbrellas on the way in. My glasses got drenched, and my eyes were so saturated that half the time the people onstage were just amorphous blobs. At about the third act I saw today, it stopped mostly stopped being fun to stand outside, and I stayed more out of a vague sense of duty and a fear that I'd miss something big than from any genuine desire to be there. And that's a shame, since this year's show, despite a relatively weak-on-paper lineup, was a whole lot better than last year's: more spirited and engaged performances, more surprising guests, better-executed big moments. And it was pretty amazing that the stadium stayed packed most of the day despite the weather, that the crowd managed to summon reserves of enthusiasm through their chattering teeth.

My ticket said that the show would be starting at 6:30, but I'm guessing it actually started before that. Either way, a confused schedule and a New Jersey Transit busdriver who insisted on circling the stadium for half an hour before deigning to let us off led me to miss Rich Boy and Mims and I think T-Pain, no great loss. When I finally made my way to my seat, Ciara was just coming onstage, and as weird as it was to see such a big star starting her set so early, it made sense once it got going. Ciara's live show is sort of uncomfortable; it's like she tries to recreate the atmosphere of one of her videos in a situation where that couldn't possibly work. The basic blueprint seems to be early-90s Janet Jackson: headset mic, elaborate choreography, backing dancers with matching outfits, thin vocals, expensive beats, ceaseless declarations of love directed toward the audience. And she didn't exactly sing or lip-sinc; instead, she ad-libbed runs and played hypeman over recordings of her own vocals. A lot of her songs are really good, and I liked her dramatically fierce facial expressions, but her set was a mess.

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Ciara was also, I think, the only performer I saw all day who didn't bring out any guests. Swizz Beatz, who took the stage after Ciara, had said in an interview that he'd be doing his entire set without any outside help, and at first it looked like that might actually be true, since he was just yelling hypeman noise over a bunch of tracks that he'd produced. A couple of minutes into it, though, the guests started coming. First came a couple of blasts from Swizz's Ruff Ryders past, Styles P and Drag-On. (Seriously! Drag-On! It was good to see him, too!) And then Swizz went on a rant about how he's been the best producer working for the last ten years, which led to a fun little staged confrontation with Kanye West, who stormed the stage and begged to differ. Both tried to make their case. Kanye played "The Takeover" and "Stand Up" and something I can't remember, and Swizz played something I can't remember and "Ruff Ryders Anthem" and "Jigga My Ninja," which led to Kanye doing half of the first verse of "Gold Digger," which of course was all the setup for Swizz doing "Money in the Bank" and "It's Me, Bitches." The whole thing was pretty ingeniously constructed as far as these cameo-appearance publicity-stunts go, and it worked really well as a build to "It's Me, Bitches," which felt pretty explosive and cathartic after all that. And after "It's Me," Swizz brought out Lil Wayne to do his verse from the remix, and it's a good measure of Wayne's current standing that the crowd absolutely lost its shit for Wayne even though we already knew he was in the stadium and even though he was only doing a just-OK verse from a remix. Wayne's miles-wide smile wasn't something I'll soon forget. I kept thinking I saw DMX at the side of the stage, but my eyes were all messed up by this point, and I was pretty far back, so I was probably wrong. In any case, it was pretty amazing how a producer-turned-hypeman with one hit managed to turn out a much more satisfying and crowd-pleasing set than an established star with half of a greatest hits album in the bank, but Swizz understands how Summer Jam works much better than Ciara does.

After Swizz came an interesting extended set from the show's entire Def Jam contingent. It started with Ne-Yo doing his set and bringing guest Fabolous out for "You Make Me Better." Then Fabolous did a couple of songs and brought out Young Jeezy for "Diamonds on My Chain." Then Jeezy did his set and brought out Ludacris for "Grew Up a Screw Up," and then Luda finished everything with his own set. It was a neat conceit, and it kept the show moving nicely, but it had mixed results. Ne-Yo's set would've gone down a lot more nicely on an actual summer day, where his slick background R&B would've wafted prettily over the stadium and given everyone a breather. He's become a more polished stage performer since last year's Summer Jam, and somewhere along the way he's found himself a group of backup dancers who look like the all-model band from the "Addicted to Love" video. But the rain made it basically impossible to sit back and relax to this stuff, and it got boring pretty quickly. Ne-Yo's not nearly as shameless a crowd-pleaser as most of the Scream Tour set, and his maturity isn't much of an asset on a stage like this one. Most of the crowd only really woke up when he brought out Fabolous, who got a huge ovation either because of the surprise factor or because people actually really like Fabolous. But Fabolous sucked hard, making the deathless mistake of yelling all the lyrics he'd mumbled on record and in the process turning the once-pristine sound-mix into a garbled atrocity. "Breathe," a song I totally love, came out sounding like straight dogshit, and Young Jeezy's big entrance fell flat because nobody gives a fuck about "Diamonds on My Chain." And Jeezy, it pains me to say, hasn't gotten much better onstage since his halfassed showing at last year's Summer Jam. I really like Jeezy's records, which might actually be part of the problem here, since I get all annoyed when he doesn't come close to doing them justice onstage. His beats sounded as titanic as ever, and he was smart enough to keep the USDA dudes from hogging any of the spotlight, but none of that makes up for the fact that Jeezy himself rapped like a third of his lines and let his hypemen finish the rest. The crowd only paid attention when he did "Soul Survivor" (Akon-free, odd considering that Akon was already on the bill) and when he brought out Jadakiss for the "Go Getta" remix. So it came as a total relief when Luda came out and showed exactly how stadium-rap should be done. Luda's got a natural advantage: on record, he already raps in a loud, precise bark, and that's the sort of delivery that totally works on a big stage. He drew from all five of his albums, only grabbing the upbeat, kinetic tracks and leaving the contemplative stuff out, which turned out to be a good idea. And the crowd, it turned out, was just as eager to hear older songs like "Southern Hospitality" and "Move, Bitch" as it was to hear "Money Maker." All those songs crackle with a sort of energetic hedonism, and he kept them coming relentlessly. The momentum only flagged a bit when he brought out Bobby Valentino to do his new single, and he sort of had to do that. But after the movies and the haircut and Release Therapy, it's really good to know that Ludacris is still a hell of a rapper; he definitely put on the best pure performance of the day.

Chris Brown, who came next, got an enormous and deafening scream just by walking onstage. Teenage girls really, really love him, and he's absolutely willing to play to them; the cheer he got for humping the ground was hilarious. Still, he gave an oddly uncommitted performance, incessantly muttering between songs that the stage was too damn slippery like he wasn't talking to 50,000 people who'd been standing out in the fucking rain for hours. At last year's Summer Jam, he'd done three songs and then left the stage, which is basically the perfect amount of Chris Brown. He's a bigger star now, though, so he went longer. The highlight came when he put on a red leather jacket and a white glove to do an extended Michael Jackson tribute, singing "Rock With You" and "Billy Jean" while spinning around and moonwalking. There was also a weird bit where the DJ played 50 Cent's "What Up Gangsta" and a couple of little kids came out and krumped to it; there's something deeply unsettling about watching nine-year-olds dance to lyrics about killing you. Brown finished his set by bringing out a punchcarding Juelz Santana and an ecstatic Lil Wayne for their verses from the "Poppin'" remix. Wayne looked even happier with Chris Brown than he did with Swizz Beatz, and the cheer he got just about made him look like the most unlikely teen idol in recent memory. After Brown left the stage, Wayne did his own mini-set, making more of an impression than anyone else I saw all night even though he only did three songs. First, he brought out Fat Joe for "Make It Rain," a fun song to sing when you really wish it would stop raining. After Joe's verse, Wayne started tentatively adding his own lyrics, and he ended up doing an entire verse completely different from the one on the "Make It Rain" remix. Here's the interesting part: he sounded like he was freestyling off the top of his head, putting together punchlines in real time and gaining confidence as he continued. I'm not sure there's such a thing as a spontaneous onstage act at Summer Jam, but Wayne managed to convince us that he was doing this on the spur of the moment. And the verse he did was really funny; I would've written down some lyrics if the rain hadn't turned my notepad into pulp. Then he did his verse from "Suck It Or Not," informing us in the process that he's part of the Byrd Gang, whatever that means anymore. After a chaotic Baby-assited rendition of "Stuntin' Like My Daddy," he sort of sang a few bars of "I Will Always Love You" ("I'll think of you every step of the waaaaay!") and strutted offstage like a five-year-old who'd just won a fistfight. Every second Wayne was onstage was totally bizarre and completely entertaining.

I started heading for the exit after Wayne, since I just couldn't justify getting any colder, but my brother and I ended up watching Diddy's set from a cutout in the wall out in the hallway. Back where we were, the echoes made it virtually impossible to hear much of anything, but Diddy's got a sense for visual spectacle strong enough that it didn't really matter. He had a full band, he had dancers, he had explosions, and he had his goofy dancing, and that stuff was pretty entertaining by itself. But he also brought guests. First came Yung Joc for fun run-throughs of "It's Goin' Down" and "I Know You See It." And then Elephant Man, whose ability to get a stadium full of wet and cold people to do goofy hand-dances cannot be underestimated. Elephant Man also recruited a couple of girls from the crowd so that he and Diddy could pick them up and hump them; Diddy ended up slipping and dropping his girl on her ass. Elephant Man, I'm convinced, could turn a mortgage executives' retreat into the best party on earth for at least a couple of minutes. Then came the first of Diddy's trump cards: T.I. came out to do "What You Know." Last year, as he was ending his set with that song, the soundman cut T.I. off, and I love the idea that he'd been waiting for the chance to come back and do it again all year. In any case, the entire crowd went totally apeshit, and the song's majesty remained undiluted even from our shitty vantage point. T.I. brought out Young Dro for "Shoulder Lean," which actually sounded almost as good, and did "Big Shit Poppin'" which definitely did not sound anywhere near as good. The guests continued: Keyshia Cole sang the hell out of her part on "Last Night." And the other trump-card: Diddy did "All About the Benjamins" and made the crowd very, very happy by bringing the Lox out for their part. Then he stopped the song, teased the moment out a bit, and finally brought out Lil Kim for her verse and for "Lighters Up." Girls were almost rioting in the hallway, turning over trashcans and standing on them so that they could see over the concrete partition. This was first-rate tabloid-rap theatre, and I can only imagine how much cooler it would've been if I wasn't so fucking wet and miserable. It was still pretty cool, though.

I left before Akon. I hope he didn't bring out Eminem or something.

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