Hot 97 Summer Jam
June 4, 2006
If you listen to a shitload of rap and you aren’t from New York, Hot 97’s annual Summer Jam ends up taking on a sort of mythical significange in your mind. Every year, you hear about a brand-new beef or a shock-tactic guest-star, and you wish you were there to see this shit go down. The classic example is Jay-Z debuting “The Takeover” and putting a picture of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy in ballet-class clothes up on the screen, but even last year, when a desperate-for-attention Game restarted his beef with G-Unit, I wished I could’ve been there. I never really stopped to consider whether Summer Jam would actually be a good show or whether I’d have any fun. I just knew it was rap’s big event, and I didn’t like missing it.
This year, I finally got my chance to go, and I was just ridiculously amped about it. The lineup of expanded acts was just absurdly stacked, and it was fun to speculate about which artists would bring out which surprise guests: Bono with Mary J. Blige? 50 Cent with Mobb Deep? Lil Wayne with Cam’ron? None of those ended up happening, and I was so stoked on seeing big things happen that it got hard to actually enjoy the performances. It didn’t help that I got to the stadium late, missing Remy Ma and finding my seat during Ne-Yo. Three 6 Mafia either didn’t perform or performed before I got there, and I’m not especially happy with either of those possibilities. Still, I was really charged up even when I finally got settled. On the way in, I saw a Ron Artest promotional Hummer with Artest sitting on the back tailgate and chatting with random people, which I decided had to be a good omen. And Ne-Yo sounded good. His voice is strong and buttery live, and he made the night look like it might have good things in store. And the stage setup was interesting; the stage was on a revolving platform, so the breaks between artists were never much longer than five minutes, and the Hot 97 DJs would use up that time by doing hyperactive mixes, just a few seconds of every song.
Things deteriorated pretty quickly when Young Jeezy came out. The sound in the stadium had been clear and uncluttered when Ne-Yo was on, but as soon as Jeezy and his army of hypemen emerged, it turned into a frantic jumble, all dissipated bass-roars and formless yelling. I could barely hear Jeezy rapping, but that might be because he wasn’t actually doing much rapping, letting his hypemen take every other line and all the adlibs. On record, his songs are huge and monumental and terrifying, but it’s pretty boring to watch him do halfassed versions of album tracks from a hundred yards away, and the crowd seemed to lose interest pretty quickly. I could be wrong here, but people are supposed to dazzle you at Summer Jam, right? That’s what the whole thing is about? Jeezy didn’t bring any guests (not even fucking Akon for “Soul Survivor”; how hard can he be to get?), and he treated his own stuff with a sort of listless contempt, like it would violate his image to put some work into his show. He also went long, and the soundman cut his sound off during “Go Crazy,” one of the only songs he did that got any kind of reaction from the crowd.
Sean Paul is one of those guys where you can love his songs but not particularly give a damn about him. He’s got a sort of mechanisic blankness in his voice, and he’s never really bothered to develop much of a public persona beyond Fun-Loving Reggae Guy. That wouldn’t be a problem in most cases, especially for an artist with a backlog of singles as deep and strong as his, but it can be a problem when he’s performing in front of fifty thousand people and trying to get them to pay attention to him. So he did choreographed routines with his backup dancers, and he did the Elephant Man dance-command thing, and still he never manage to connect with the audience as much as his only guest, Baby Cham, who did one verse of “Ghetto Story” (quite possibly the song of the year thus far) and ended up stealing the set. Sean Paul’s singles still sounded great; he reached back to “Get Busy” and “Like Glue” and “Gimme the Light,” all things he didn’t do during the Hot 97 reggae show last year, but the non-Baby Cham parts of his performance were still big empty spaces.
Voice review: Elena Oumano on Sean Paul’s Dutty Rock
Mobb Deep made the exceedingly sane decision to start off their performance with “Shook Ones,” their one song that pretty much everybody agrees is an absolute masterpiece. Its eerie minor-key pianos and sneered threats didn’t sound especially great in a place the size of Giants Stadium, but people were amped to hear the song, which is what matters. But after that, they just dried up and died onstage. They did “Hav a Party” without 50 Cent or Nate Dogg and yelled G-Unit nonstop while Prodigy flashed his G-Unit tattoo. And then they did the same thing on their verses from the “Outta Control” remix. And they decided that “Got It Twisted” was a big enough song to get Summer Jam stagetime two summers after it came out. None of these were particularly well thought-out ideas, and the crowd stopped paying attention to them really quickly. When one of the radio DJs played a mini-set of G-Unit songs after Mobb Deep got done, he got a bigger reaction than the group. It was sad.
Voice review: Greg Tate on Mobb Deep’s Blood Money
Jamie Foxx, by contrast, was furiously hammy and entertaining, and he had the crowd eating out of his hand immediately. He’s no R. Kelly, but his cheesed-out loverman schtick still worked beautifully, especially after Mobb Deep bricked. It looked for a second like he had a full live band behind him, but upon closer inspection it was just a few backup singers and a keyboard player and a guitarist whose sole function was to play a solo on “DJ Play a Love Song.” Foxx was absolutely shameless about playing to the women in the audience, and he limited his set to three songs before bringing out his big guest: LL Cool J, who mentioned the weird little beef he’d had with Foxx after they both starred in Any Given Sunday, something that I doubt anyone in the audience would’ve remembered if he hadn’t reminded them. Foxx asked if he could be LL’s hypeman, and so LL did “Headsprung” while Foxx ran around and did ridiculously funny LL imitations, gritting his teeth and flexing his muscles while an apparently oblivious LL did the exact same stuff with no irony whatsoever just a few feet away. Foxx is a good singer, but he’s much better as a physical comedian; not too many people could’ve pulled that off. He got in one final dig as both left the stage. LL mentioned something about his album being out, and Foxx followed that up: My album’s out, too. Go get another copy.”
Voice review: Greg Tate on Jamie Foxx’s Unpredictable
Dem Franchize Boyz are continually held up as examples of why rap is stupid now; people just hate them. So I was half-expecting a self-righteous New York rap crowd to boo them off the stage without a second half, but no. Plenty of the New Yorkers at Summer Jam aren’t the least bit shy about doing the “Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It” dance, and the kid sitting next to me looked like he’d been waiting for his chance all night. As rappers, Dem Franchize Boyz are nothing special, but they do that dance beautifully, which really matters a whole lot more in a stadium-rap context. They’re fun to watch, and they’ve only got a couple of hits, so they didn’t outstay their welcome. Jermaine Dupri came out with them, and a couple of songs into the set, he brought out Janet Jackson to enormous cheers. But Janet didn’t do anything; she just waved to the crowd and walked back offstage. It was weird. A few songs later, after Dupri threw money at the crowd during “Money Ain’t a Thing” and brought out an Afro-puffed Da Brat on “I Think They Like Me,” he did the same thing again with Mariah Carey. She walked out, soaked up the applause for a minute, stayed there while the audience sang one of her songs at her, and then she left. Why didn’t someone hand her a mic? Why did she come onstage if she wasn’t going to sing?
Voice review: Christopher R. Weingarten on Dem Franchize Boyz’ On Top of Our Game
After that, Jamie Foxx came back out again to introduce Mary J. Blige, who did have a full band with her. Blige vaguely like Lil Kim: straightened blonde hair, white aviator sunglasses. She came out singing “Real Love” and sounding something close to perfect. Blige mostly stuck with songs from her new album, dispensing heartwarming Oprah-esque monologues between fans and sounding truly disarmingly sincere. More than any of the other performers on the bill, Blige seems at home in her stadium, her songs huge and stately enough to survive the transition and her voice more than strong enough to reach the cheap seats. It had begun raining during Foxx’s set, and it became a full-on downpour when Blige was on, but most of the crowd weathered the rain, and so we ended up getting some of those great stadium moments where the audience comes close to drowning out the singer onstage. On “Enough Cryin,” Blige introduced Brook, her rapping alter-ego, like she was a real person; it’s totally fun to watch Blige rapping. And after just murdering “Family Affair,” Blige did “MJB Da MVP,” her freestyle over “Hate It Or Love It,” which is both utterly gorgeous and the closest thing she has to a street anthem. At the song’s climactic end, she managed to trip over a chord and almost fall on her face while leaving the stage. I don’t know why Blige didn’t close the show out; she outclassed everyone else on the bill without breaking a sweat.
Voice review: Jason King on Mary J. Blige’s The Breakthrough
It was truly weird watching Chris Brown follow Blige, but the girls in the audience bugged the fuck out for him even more than they did for Ne-Yo, so maybe that had something to do with it. Brown can dance, and he can do it while singing at the same time without resorting to lip-syncing or running out of breath, and that’s pretty impressive. He moonwalked! I liked that. I also liked that he limited himself to three songs, which is all anyone really needs from him. He did not, unfortunately, bring out Lil Wayne or Juelz Santana for their parts on “Gimme That” and “Run It,” which means he’s clearly not as street as Bobby Valentino, who brought both of them out at the Scream Tour last year. Speaking of the Scream Tour, whoever puts that together really needs to land Chris Brown for that thing next year. He’s like a next-generation Omarion, and I’m not entirely sure if I mean that as a compliment, but I think I do.
Foxx also introduced T.I., who came out to the same breathless opening he’d used at the Apollo Theatre on Thursday night, letting the horn fanfares on “King Back” announce him. T.I. did an abbreviated version of that same show, even using some of the stage patter, just removing a few songs and only doing the hooks of a few others. He knows how to work a huge crowd better than any of the night’s other rappers, prowling the stage like a wolf and jumping out onto the barricade during “U Don’t Know Me.” Foxx came out again to sing the hook to “Live in the Sky,” and T.I. asked the crowd to hold up their cellphones; the resulting sea of lights across the entire stadium was just breathtakingly gorgeous. But T.I. didn’t shorten his set up enough, and the soundman cut him off just before he got to “What You Know,” which was a damn shame. When the radio-station DJ cued up “What You Know” immediately after, it may have gotten a bigger reaction than any other song of the night.
I thought it was weird that, along with Blige, Busta Rhymes was getting co-headlining honors; as I’ve written elsewhere, I just can’t imagine people care that much about the guy. He certainly got a royal intro. Jamie Foxx, who at some point decided to become the evening’s unofficial host introduced him, and then we got a video package of career highlights like he was Triple H or some shit. And then he and Spliff Star ran out in football uniforms to the 2001 theme. Busta got a pretty huge cheer for all this stuff, but those cheers disappeared pretty quickly, just as I thought they would. He did his verse of the “Ante Up” remix without M.O.P., which I thought was a supremely lame move. He and Spliff Star certianly work hard onstage, pulling out his old fast-rapping trick and charging tirelessly around the stage. But there’s not much behind all the pyrotechnics. When he did his new Rick James duet, Busta introduced a video of James, and he must’ve thought that he’d get a worshipful ovation instead of the silence he got. He seemed a bit thrown at the apathetic response, telling the audience that the album was out soon and that we should “make sure you study the songs.” Then he did the “Touch It” remix, which started out clumsily when Blige, who we’d already seen perform earlier that night, was limited to an on-screen cameo and Rah-Digga came out rapping with a mic that wasn’t on. But the crowd picked up a lot when Missy Elliott emerged to give her terrible verse, and then went absolutely, bizarrely nuts when Papoose came out for his verse. For a second, it looked like people were genuinely excited about Papoose, but then he did “Get Right” and everyone stopped caring. After Papoose, though, Busta yielded the stage to a completely head-spinning parade of guests in the night’s one big stretch of dazzling cameos. First, pretty much the entire Wu-Tang Clan came out, which was just insanely great to see. I’m not sure if GZA and Ghostface showed up (I wasn’t sitting close enough; I’m pretty sure Ghost wasn’t there). Still, they had enough people to get through the first half of “Triumph,” and it was really gratifying to see. I’ve got big soft spots for U-God and Cappadonna, and getting to see these guys get out and rap in front of a Summer Jam audience was a rare and unexpected treat. And then Rakim ran out with a towel on his head for “Eric B is President.” And then Slick Rick came out with his entire gold-chain collection around his neck for “Children’s Story.” And then Big Daddy Kane, looking insanely dapper and absolutely wrecking “Warm It Up, Kane.” And then Q-Tip, doing his verse from the “Scenario” remix. I’ve seen all these guys do nostalgia-rap shows in different contexts over the last few years, many of them more than once, but I’ve never seen a collection of enormous talents crammed into such a short period of time; it was pretty fucking awesome. Still, I wish I could’ve seen this happen for some purpose other than as a lead-up to Busta peforming “New York Shit,” his hamfisted attempt at a local-pride anthem. To make matters worse, Swizz Beats came out before the song and put a big crown on Busta’s head, calling him “the new King of New York,” which, I mean, come on.
Voice review: Harry Allen on Busta Rhymes’ Genesis
But then, if Busta’s not the King of NY, who is? It’s certainly not Cam’ron, who was inexplicably chosen to close out the show and who sent most of the audience running for the exits before he was done, though that might’ve had more to do with the Dipset’s appallingly shitty performance than with Cam’s actual status. Jim Jones might’ve actually gotten more mic time than anyone else in the crew, and nobody wants to see that. Jones came out in a purple jacket, swigging from a champagne bottle while a ridiculously huge crowd of people stood onstage behind him. He did like five songs, even bringing out Trey Songz for “Summer with Miami.” Juelz Santana came out next, and he didn’t help much. Santana and Jones are both sort of stadium rappers; they both just huff and puff and yell with absolutely no regard for flow, so there’s no danger that the intricacies of their craft will be lost in a larger space since they’re just not there in the first place. At the end of the night, when you’re already soaked and you’ve been sitting through a few hours of rappers, this is not what you want to be hearing, especially if Jones is going to keep giving verses to Max Billabong. Juelz had at least one nice, moment, when he gave a mic to his absolutely adorable nephew and let him rap “The Whistle Song.” But I was just waiting for Cam’ron, partly because he’s an infinitely better rapper than those two clowns and partly because of this rumor, the idea that he’d be escalating his beef with Jay-Z to inadvisable levels. Well, he didn’t do that. He came out and did like two songs, and the stage was so crowded with people that he was nearly impossible to find. And then he looked around for JR Writer and got him to do “Grill Em.” And then he did “Touch It Or Not,” and it was over. Oh, and Jim Jones brought out Yung Joc to do “It’s Goin’ Down.” That was their big guest. Yung Joc. It was like Killa Season: The Stage Play.