The race is on
Against all conceivable odds, this year’s Summer Jam turned into a New York rap show: unexplained cancellations, inexplicable cameos, a whole lot of dudes onstage yelling, appearances from Raekwon and Nature and Hell Rell, mostly terrible sound, general chaos. It was a whole lot of fun, and the rappers on the bill definitely snatched the spotlight from the singers, something that never quite happened at the last couple of shows. Rihanna, it turned out, never showed up for some reason, and nobody onstage said her name all night. The “featuring Gym Class Heroes” part of Lil Wayne’s set turned out to mean, blessedly, “featuring one guy from Gym Class Heroes standing at the back of the stage and watching silently amidst all the dudes in Carter III T-shirts.” No big beefs kicked off; that moment seems to be over. And the one moment of friction coming to life happened when Kanye West, despite his de-facto headlining spot and his expensive, elaborate stage show, realized that Lil Wayne, his immediate predecessor, had the big moment this year. Kanye freaked out fascinatingly, telling us over and over that he’d take this one on the chin, take it like a man, and get into the studio immediately to work on some crazy shit for later years. Kanye’s little crisis seemed a bit unfounded; I heard a whole lot of people on the way out commenting that Kanye actually had a far better stage-show than Wayne did, and I sort of agree. But for all the eye-grabbing spectacle of his set, Kanye seemed to forget that Summer Jam is supposed to be a party, not an everlasting testament to one man’s starpower. Wayne, and the other acts on the bill, never forgot that.
In past years, I’ve been way up on the stadium’s toilet-bowl, but this year, thanks to a couple of kindly publicists, I had some amazing seats: down near the front, close enough for the bass to really punch me in the face, close enough that I actually ended up onscreen for like five seconds as the show was starting. (I’m confident and amped that that was the first time a Disfear T-shirt ever made it to the Summer Jam screen.) And that location really drove home, more than usual, what a big deal this show is. When you walk through the dank concrete entranceway onto that floor, lights flashing, super-psyched teenagers jumping up and down all around you, it’s pretty impossible not to get a tingle. In every one of the past five years or so, the announcement of the Summer Jam lineup has been occasion for people to grumble about the state of rap. But Summer Jam isn’t really about the state of rap; it’s about that sense of exhilaration, of hearing all the songs on your car radio getting performed in quick succession right in front of you. And Giants Stadium is such a pain in the ass, $20 to park in a lot that’s damn near impossible to enter and exit, that it’d better have that adrenaline-rush factor to make the whole rigamarole worthwhile. Somehow, it always is.
This year, the show’s organizers did us the favor of getting the chirpy robo-R&B acts out of the way as early as possible. Ray J, starting the show, sounded like total ass, tinkling on a keyboard and singing a drippy love-ballad two minutes into a show that really has limited time for such things. Yung Berg, who shared the stage with him, is really, really not a good rapper, but he was at least excited. Ten minutes and they were done. The-Dream, meanwhile, did the exact same three-song set as he did opening for Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige a couple of weeks back. His backup dancers’ nasty stripper moves are really getting out of control; it’s like The-Dream is trying to become the 2 Live Crew of chirpy robo-R&B. Ten minutes and he was done. He even got cut off mid-song, which made me happy because fuck that guy.
Alicia Keys, the name in the biggest font on the show’s promotional posters, ended up third on the bill, shockingly early. It turned out to be a canny move on the promoters’ part; a late-evening Alicia Keys set wouldn’t have helped the show’s momentum. And Keys, in any case, understood her role, winning me over forever by opening with her verse from the “Ghetto Story” remix and breezing through a few deeply satisfying sunburst pop jams. She also brought out Maino, which made sense because classically trained adult-contempo divas and snarly NY mixtape rappers make for such a natural pairing. (Actually, it was pretty great. Alicia and the rest of the stadium all seemed happy to hear “Hi Hater.”) Onstage, Keys is a beaming, magnanimous presence, and she clearly understands the Summer Jam mystique way more than any pop-star of her stature could be expected to. Still, it was a dizzy little surprise when she introduced first Raekwon, then Method Man, then Ghostface, for a quick little medley of “Incarcerated Scarfaces” and “CREAM” and “Ice Cream” and “Method Man.” In all, Keys turned over fully half of her startingly short set to the veteran Wu-Tang guys, standing off to the side and rapping along with every word, as happy to play hypeman as she was to sing her own songs. The Wu guys were likewise all smiles, seizing their feel-good flashback moment for all it was worth. This was turning out to be a rap show after all.
That point was sure driven home by D-Block’s set, which turned into a celebration of knucklehead NY shit. It wasn’t a surprise when Sheek and Styles, the two names on the bill, brought out Jadakiss. It wasn’t even much of a surprise when they brought out Red Cafe and Fabolous and Fat Joe and Nature and Swizz Beatz and Nore, the last of whom has maybe been putting a bit too much cream cheese on his bagels. But seeing all these guys in rapid succession, spitting guttural mixtape verses to a rapturous stadium, made a powerful case for the lasting vitality of New York rap and for the stadium-rocking potential of a whole bunch of grimy dudes with neck tattoos yelling rhymes into mics. (The sound, of course, was terrible, but it didn’t particularly matter.) The one honest-to-God for-the-ladies moment, Sheek’s “Good Love,” didn’t sound too different from the neck-snap stuff. And the one big set-closing surprise guest, LL Cool J, made sure to leave room for “Rock the Bells” when he got done with “Headsprung.”
The one thing that set had in common with the one right after was Fat Joe, which pretty much tells you how things went from there. T-Pain, a self-created cartoon character in a leprechaun-green Dr. Seuss top hat, started out his set doing insanely dumb and fun choreographed dances with his two equally goofy backup dancers. After his verses from the “Two Step” remix and “Kiss Kiss,” though, the T-Pain set turned into an extended showcase for the DJ Khaled all-stars: Khaled, Ace Hood, stage-hogging possible new member Shawty Lo, Fat Joe, a clownishly laid-back Akon. Grunting beached whale Rick Ross, who wandered out to a massive cheer, cut maybe the most ridiculous figure of the whole day, no mean feat. Shirtless, giant medallion depicting his own head sitting between flapping bitchtits, giant beard, tats everywhere, huge gut sagging, this guy came off like some unholy fusion of Isaac Hayes and Jabba the Hutt. Next to Ross, even Fat Joe looked positively svelte. Ross rapped horribly, people rapped along, and the clusterfuck rolled on. Anyone hoping to argue Southern rap’s superiority to the NY stuff would have a whole lot of trouble after those two subsequent sets.
Lil Wayne, up next, made things easier. This was Wayne’s moment. Tha Carter III, of course, had just leaked (expect a mammoth post on that tomorrow), but Wayne seemed unperturbed. In fact, he seemed stoned as all hell. Up until then, every performer on that stage had been ecstatic and energized to be there. For Wayne, though, it was just another show; I’m not sure he even looked at the crowd until he’d finished stuttering demonically through “A Milli,” one of only two Carter III songs he did the whole time he was up there. And he was surprisingly light on big-name guests (Shawty Lo and Tity Boi don’t count.) Instead, he took us all into his weeded-out headspace. After a few hits (the “Dey Know” remix, “Duffle Bag Boy,” “Fireman,” “I’m Me,” all awesome), he took off his shirt, sat down with a Jack White-looking guitar, and noodled his way through “Leather So Soft.” As a guitarist, Wayne sounds like an eighth-grader figuring out the “Come As You Are” bass-riff, so it was a weirdly hubristic act to bust that thing out. I’d seen YouTube Wayne playing guitar on YouTube, but it’s a whole other thing to see him try it out in front of an impatient stadium audience, confident that nobody was getting bored anytime soon. Then he followed that up with what felt like ten minutes of “Pussy Monster,” an endlessly nasty oral-sex jam with a goofily simple human-beatbox accompaniment, a song that’ll probably never see release. “Pussy Monster” really couldn’t be any more stomach-churningly graphic, and it got Wayne the biggest heartthrob screams of the day. Rasping his come-ons, Wayne rolled on the floor, humped the stage, stuck his hand down his pants, and basically did whatever he could to piss off the dudes in the audience. That willingness to be a complete and utter freak is a huge part of what makes Wayne’s superstardom end-run such a crazy story: this tatted-up little gargoyle mess gets Chris Brown screams because he’s willing to believe that he’ll get those screams, and he doesn’t even switch up his syrup-addled libertine persona to get them. And so “Lollipop” became an extended vamp on a day when all the other performers kept their big hits to just a verse and a chorus. The crowd was equal parts euphoric and baffled; I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed such a pure and grand-scale WTF reaction to anything. When Kanye West, scarf wrapped around his face, came out for his set-ending “Lollipop” remix verse, he got bigger cheers than he managed during his own set, something not lost on him.
Kanye’s super-elaborate stage-set wasn’t a shrunken version of his Glow in the Dark set; it was something else entirely. His band, all in black, some wearing polygonal shoulderpads or Daft Punk visors, stood on a gleaming metal catwalk behind him, and a kettle-drummer added booming symphonic grandeur to every muscled-up reworking. Every big moment came with a gigantic fireworks display. The intro involved a dancer wearing a clanking, Giger-looking alien-robot costume. And yet the whole thing felt oddly anticlimactic, like the Wayne set had just sucked too much air out of the crowd. Kanye’s response was telling. I can imagine he’s spent the past few days obsessively playing the Carter III leak, just like I have, and psyching himself out. This Summer Jam was supposed to be his final superstar victory-lap, but before the set was half over, he was freestyling over “Flashing Lights” about the L he was taking. He kept coming back to it all fraught and disoriented, telling us he was going to the studio tonight, that he’d seen this happen before, that this was Wayne’s night and he was taking it like a man. Any other headliner, I think, would’ve trusted his own appeal, kept his head down, and barreled through the rest of the set. But Kanye kept worrying. At one point, he seemed at a loss for what to do, and so he pulled out a twisty number-jammed a capella freestyle, something I’m fairly certain wasn’t planned. When he got to the line about looking for a Swedish bitch to put some sperm in, the crowd either oohed or booed, maybe a bit of both. Consequence, looking totally jarred and out of place, came out for “The Good the Bad and the Ugly.” Young Jeezy emerged on the brooding and titanic “Put On,” a song that gets better every time I hear it. T-Pain helped out on an extended version of “The Good Life,” a song that was intended as a triumphant ending and even sort of was, though Kanye wouldn’t hear it. Something that became evident during the Jeezy appearance: Kanye is a really good live rapper. Without a hypeman to finish his lines, Jeezy seems lost; he only rapped like two thirds of the words from his verse. Kanye, meanwhile, hits every mark and enunciates hard; he’ll never need a hypeman. Plus he’s got songs that sound perfectly at home in a stadium, and his expensive stage-set was really a marvel to behold. The sound, patchy all night, suddenly became full and cinematic as soon as he came out. And yet none of it was enough for Kanye. Without a crowd as automatically rabid as the one at his Glow in the Dark show, he seemed completely at sea, unsure how to respond. When Kanye showed up at last year’s Summer Jam, he staged an impromptu fake beat-battle during the Swizz Beatz set, and he had fun. Last night, he wasn’t having fun. As happy as I am to see a real example of old-school superstar competitiveness, I hope Kanye West remembers how to have fun again really, really soon.
Kanye talked about how he’d finally come to the stage in his career where he could close out Summer Jam, but even if he essentially headlined, there were still a couple of acts to go. Next up was Public Enemy, who I’d inexcusably never seen live. And holy shit. Chuck may be a whole lot older and craggier, Flavor Flav may be a huge embarrassment to the world these days, but these guys still put on a show; I got serious goosebumps during the opening S1Ws routine. Before Public Enemy’s set, the DJs announced that they had a special-guest surprise closer afterwards, and so most of the people who would’ve ordinarily left early stayed around, but they stayed seated and outwardly bored during PE’s set, a depressing spectacle. You couldn’t expect Chuck D to get in front of a crowd this size and not preach, so we got a few hectoring words about how radio-stations need to use their power responsibly (the old Spider-Man speech) and how Obama’s not going to save us all. When Chuck wasn’t talking, though, the set had no wasted moments, and Chuck and Flav were all restless energy, whipping across the stage while they careened through every big song in their group’s history. Flav may be a mess now, but he’s still easily the greatest hypeman in rap history, and he and the rest of the group have spent enough decades touring to know how to rock a crowd like this. And yet the biggest cheers of the set came with the mentions of Sean Bell and of Flavor of Love. This made for a sad spectacle: a giant crowd fuming impatiently through a hard, muscular set from one of the greatest rap groups ever. Rap forgets its elders.
The transition from Public Enemy to Jim Jones, the total disappointment of a surprise-guest closer, couldn’t have been more jarring. This was Jones’s third straight time closing out Summer Jam, and I really hope this hasn’t become a tradition; this guy’s stage show has gotten leaner, and hangers-on don’t clog his stage quite so completely, but he still cannot rap to save his life. And yet the crowd stayed; either Jim Jones is way more of a local cult hero than I’m willing to admit, or everyone just likes doing the “We Fly High” jump-shot dance. Juelz Santana made a non-surprise surprise appearance. Assorted Dipset weed-carriers mugged away. Someone who either was Ray Allen or looked exactly like Ray Allen rapped along with every word, which was weird; nobody mentioned him by name, and doesn’t that guy have an NBA Finals appearance coming up? I really hope it wasn’t Ray Allen. Nobody mentioned Cam. Anyone looking for signs of doomsday could find plenty of material in the move from Public Enemy’s fists-up onslaught to Jones’s lazy get-money talk. But really, this year’s Summer Jam was way more of a local-rap love-in than anyone could’ve anticipated. Either this one will go down as a historic aberration, or it’ll be the moment the grimy local rap dudes took their stage back. If it’s the latter, thank God.