Summer Jam, Hot 97’s annual hip-hop bacchanal, this year infiltrated New Meadowlands Stadium for a mercifully not-tornado-besotted Sunday evening full of announced stars (Usher, Drake, Ludacris) and theoretically possible surprise-guest superstars (Jay-Z? Kanye? 50?) who didn’t show. We survived and mostly enjoyed ourselves, though, the ladies thanks to Trey Songz and everyone else thanks to (!) DJ Khaled. Here is a more detailed report:
6:05 p.m.: The coveted Artist Blasting From the Most Car Stereos in Hopelessly Gridlocked Summer Jam Traffic Award this year goes to Gucci Mane, edging out Lil Wayne, Fabolous, Usher, Major Lazer (!), and 311 (?!).
6:35: Naturally, then, Gucci (and Waka Flocka!) goes on first, to the great dismay of all those still stuck in traffic listening to 311.
6:53: As a consolation prize, latecomers, here is Harlem’s own Juelz Santana, setting the tone lyrically (“She looks like she got the kind of pussy I eat”), reprising some warm Dipset memories (still love “The Whistle Song”), and pulling out both Maino (for “Hi Hater,” to negligible effect) and Lloyd Banks (for “Beamer, Benz, or Bentley,” to tremendous effect). Grim, menacing, and profoundly infectious, “Beamer” is probably Hot 97’s unofficial song of the year, ubiquitous until they started playing Usher songs every 10 minutes as Summer Jam promo. Hopefully, they go back to it now.
7:17: “Truth be told/I’d probably be/Lyrically/Talib Kweli,” raps Talib Kweli, quoting that undermine-y Jay-Z song in which Jay admits he has dumbed down his lyrics because that way he makes more money. And so, during a (theoretically, at least) blockbuster commercial-rap spectacular such as this, that’s Kweli’s role: to be what Jay-Z decided not to be. The Brooklyn deep-thinker pontificates valiantly despite crowd indifference; his guests include Jay-Z protégé J. Cole and Estelle, who does her liquid-y pop-soul trifle “American Boy,” except without Kanye West, which only serves to remind us that Kanye West isn’t here.
7:34: A word about our venue (rest assured the New Meadowlands is not some sort of sonic utopia—all the muffled backing tracks and dead mics serve to remind us that this is still, after all, a football stadium) and our sponsors, including Bud Light, the new McDonald’s fake-frappuccino thing, the Anti-Bullying Movement, and, of course, the big daddy, Boost Mobile, whose presence, some in our midst theorize, is the reason everyone’s getting crap self-phone reception.
7:37: Fabolous! With a full band! And a mixtape (There Is No Competition 2) as successful as anything anyone here has officially released in 2010! He does “Body Ya” as a rap-metal anthem tailor-made for the Judgment Night remake hopefully nobody actually makes, and reminds us not to turn our backs on our friends when they’re down.
8:10: Drake is arguably the hottest commodity on this year’s bill: young, ascendant, and most capable of bridging the rappity-rap/loverman-r&b divide that makes this lineup so bizarre. Had him pegged for the prime second-to-last spot, but, nope, here he is, mired in the middle but admirably unfazed, whipping his Yankees hat into the crowd during “Forever,” goading us into screaming so loud that benefactor Lil Wayne can hear us all the way over at Rikers Island, resisting the urge to dance (which leading Drake scholars insist is an act of mercy), and ending the set on his knees, soaking it in, waiting for the torch to materialize. Nicki Minaj does the first of several guest-verse walk-ons in a series of elaborate “invincible Street Fighter 2 character” dresses.
8:44: Trey Songz, pushed way over to the loverman-r&b side of the divide, straight up masturbates onstage, shirtless, to the unceasing shrieking delight of every single female in the stadium, with the exception of the young lady sitting next to me, who declares, to no one in particular, “He’s too small for me! He’s like my little brother.” Every other overheard remark is more on the order of “Take it off!” or “I’m ready!” or “He’s phenomenal!” or “Oh, my god!” or “Who’s this bitch?” This last during the perfunctory pull-a-random-girl-onstage bit, which here involves several salacious cascades of ice water.
9:16: My companion this evening rolls his eyes violently as Ludacris is announced, and yet soon is miming along to every word of “Dey Know”: Luda is nobody’s all-time favorite, but his specific brand of prurience is professional-quality and awfully persuasive. (Let no man speak against “Fantasy.”) Nicki Minaj comes back out for “My Chick Bad” with a mic that doesn’t appear to be working and a freshly amped-up crowd eager to scream along to her verse and render that fact irrelevant.
9:41: DJ Khaled walked away with this thing. Just wrecked the place. His ordinarily woeful lack of grace or nuance is exactly the quality you need here: “All I Do Is Win” is a shout-along planet-destroyer, and from there, he brings out guest star after guest star: Rick Ross, Fat Joe, T-Pain, Busta Rhymes, Barrington Levy, Cam’ron (to complete pandemonium). Each gets 60 seconds in the spotlight, if that (at this point, there are roughly 150 people onstage, including one of Diddy’s kids), and that’s the perfect amount. A command performance, a single-handed (well, OK, 300-handed) rescue operation on a show that was up to then short on both star power and surprise. Couldn’t have been better. No, really.
10:12: Funkmaster Flex is the first DJ you’d think of to be violent, boisterous, and loud enough to save Usher’s bacon by jolting the crowd into not fleeing for the exits to beat the crowd, and the absolute last person you’d want to sit next to on an airplane.
10:48: And yet Usher, your putative headliner, is entirely anticlimactic anyway, an unwelcome regression to Trey Songz–style dry-humping boudoir jams, with an elaborate light show and multilevel stage and myriad backup dancers and, sure, hits you know and, if not love exactly, certainly don’t hate. But even a casual Hot 97 listener is completely burned out on them by now anyway, and, really, this is neither the time nor the place for high production values. What you want is 150 people onstage, all screaming at you, and you screaming right back, fancy wardrobe not required. Just ask Rick Ross, who will never be accused of being too small for anybody.