Teens are easily spooked, irritated, or confused when the aged address them at music festivals.
Here, after all, is a space they justifiably believe belongs to them exclusively, so I wasn’t much surprised when the dazed young woman loitering near one of the water stations at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds didn’t immediately answer when I asked if she was in line.
I tried again, boosting my voice with slightly more adultish force, and she said “yes” as though responding to an entirely different question posed by someone who is neither a) me nor b) corporeal, then drifted forward to fill her bottle.
I knew the weekend’s high temperatures would play a serious factor in how this year’s Soundset audience would conduct itself, but here it was, not even noon on Sunday, and this poor kid was already zonked from heat exhaustion.
Ha, just kidding. She was high as fuck.
(You mean “high on the good vibes and great hip-hop that Soundset has brought to Minnesota for 11 years now,” Keith? Uh, yeah, sure, that’s it, officer.)
Soundset is a quintessentially Minnesotan music festival, and not just because Rhymesayers artists remain at the core of the ever-expanding, stylistically inclusive rap-a-thon the local label organizes. No, Soundset is Minnesotan because it allows Minnesotans to indulge in our two favorite topics of conversation: The unique wonderfulness of Minnesota and the weather.
There is always weather on Memorial Day weekend, and it’s often dramatic. In past years, tornado warnings and thunderstorms have sent the Soundset faithful scurrying for cover. This year it was the heat, with temperatures climbing upwards to challenge records set during the Dust Bowl. And yeah, it was brutal, though I saw no greater number of limp bodies carried, driven, or otherwise assisted to safety than you’d expect from an event of this size.
And if you were a Minnesotan seeking reassurance about how special you are, this was the place to be. The Wu-Tang’s RZA, host Sway Calloway, headliner Logic—all had great things to say about Minnesota and Soundset. Jaden Smith even big-upped the Showplace Icon movie theater in St. Louis Park because his obsession with the word “icon” borders on the clinical. Celebrities may be just like us, but their kids are fuckin’ weird.
The ladies run this motherfucker
As with most music festivals, there are fewer women onstage at Soundset than there should be. I caught a couple fierce sets over at the Atmosphere and Friends Stage (f.k.a. the Fifth Element stage) from local MC the Lioness and Brooklyn rapper Young M.A. But you had to show up on the early side to catch the two highest-profile female MCs of the day hit the main stage. (As before, there were actually two main stages set up at the end of the Midway, to help keep the show moving.)
Some MCs struggle for a full eight bars to scrounge up as much meaning as Oakland’s Kamaiyah can pack into a single “goddam,” and she let loose with at least one between each song during her high-noon set, all while engulfed in an unseasonally heavy black Raiders jacket. North Carolina’s Rapsody, whose brilliant 2017 album Laila’s Wisdom got a boost from an unexpected Grammy nomination, was among the festival highlights. Her band, the Storm Troopers, which included her producer 9th Wonder as DJ and a small horn section, was limber and funky—none of the overdrumming that mars some live-band hip-hop. She brought an audience member onstage to flirt with him (“I like ‘em strong,” she teased), riffed off Biggie’s “Kick in the Door,” and boasted “I’m not a ‘female MC’ ... I’m a beast.”
But the queen of Soundset this year was, to no one’s surprise, Ms. Erykah Badu, who first appeared in a giant tan hat with a broad brim that shaded her eyes. The full Badu experience is far too digressive to be distilled into a mere “33 minutes and 21 seconds,” as she timed her set out to be—she needs to stretch out, whether pecking out beats on a drum machine between songs or declaiming “I’ve never performed in the daylight” and then musing melodically on the word “daylight” as though she had all the time in the world.
The Badu supercut we experienced was satisfying enough though, incorporating oldies like “...& On” and “Love of My Life” as well as a version of Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me” that began with a playful call and response of “hello” with her backup singers. She asked us to celebrate all kinds of artists, including “hoes” (“that’s an art too”) and, after a momentarily anemic crowd response, told us “I need more people to say ‘yeah’ than that—keep in mind that I’m an artist and I’m sensitive to that shit.”
Soundset is for the children
“Wu! Tang! Wu! Tang!”
Rowdy chants for an upcoming act might leave even a seasoned MC shook, so it’s no wonder that Russ, a young dink in a white cap and floral shirt looking like he was Mike Love Jr., handled it less gracefully. (Think about it: If the most loathed Beach Boy started out today, he probably would be a white rapper introducing callow sex raps with backhanded self-owns like “one of my requirements for the women I fuck is they got to be psycho,” no?) By the end of his set Russ was defensively saying shit like “If you came here only to see me make some noise” and “I don’t even know who’s up next.” He was probably trying to lighten the mood. He probably shouldn’t have tried to lighten the mood.
“Some of these songs is older than you motherfuckers,” Method Man declared gruffly as the reunited Wu-Tang Clan ripped through their 25-year-old classic Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). Staten Island’s finest found space in their set for tributes to the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard, the Cappadonna feature “Winter Warz,” and the uncharacteristically bouncy later hit “Gravel Pit,” and it was odd to hear the lopsided beats and disparate rhyme styles that once sounded like a cryptic invite to a secret society now register as familiar and reassuring shared culture. Like the Eric B and Rakim set at the Varsity last month, the Wu set offered a no-nonsense model for how to put on great hip-hop nostalgia set—well, aside from that weird moment at the end when Meth told us the Timberwolves “fucking suck.”
If there was any consensus among the many different performers at Soundset, it was that we could be whatever we wanted to be. Sometimes, this was genuinely moving, as when Rapsody promised young girls that they could race cars or travel into space, or when the Bronx main-stager A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie declared flatly “dreams are important.” Such talk was less inspiring coming from Jaden Smith, the Julian Lennon to Willow’s Sean, whose Migos-like repetition of lyrics struck me as derivative and who ended his set by repeatedly and hoarsely shouting “icon!” Take it from me, parents—sometimes there’s just nothing to understand.
Soundset is a day of tough calls, and I skipped out on Tyler, the Creator’s main-stage set to catch Ice-T at the Atmosphere and Friends stage because my own teen self would never forgive me otherwise. Ice’s delivery is as clipped and venomous as ever on classics like “I’m Your Pusher” or “Girls, L.G.B.N.A.F.” (that’s “let’s get butt naked and fuck,” if you don’t know). But he’s on that old-man-yells-at-SoundCloud bullshit, talking about how “the words had to make sense” in his day and “I don’t hate new rap—I hate wack rap.” I don’t need to feel any older than I already am, so Ice’s hard-ass gramps vibe sends me tromping back across the fairgrounds to see Tyler.
Charismatic in his reflective yellow vest and matching shorts, Tyler is trying to reconcile the aggro self-laceration of his enfant terrible days with Odd Future and his floral, jazz-allusive beats of his latest album, Flower Boy, and it’s a fascinating balancing act to watch. Maybe 15 years from now he’ll be leading an Odd Future 25th anniversary reunion on the main stage; maybe he’ll be grumbling about whatever mutant permutation of beats and rhymes the kids are now trying to pass off as hip-hop. When his set closes with Badu (who’d previously mused about "mumble rap" that “maybe the words aren’t as important as the vibrations”) joining him for “Can I Get a Kiss,” it’s clear that wherever Tyler is in 2033, Erykah will still be reigning o’er all.
Celebrating locally and globally
For the first time since the festival’s inception, there was no main-stage Atmosphere performance. Slug didn’t just want to cede the spotlight to the fest’s increasingly ginormous headliners; as he told the Star Tribune, he wanted to recapture “the old backyard barbecue vibe” of Soundset’s early days. And so, the Fifth Element stage was rechristened the Atmosphere and Friends stage, offering up something like a Soundset within a Soundset.
Rhymesayers were still well represented on the Midway. Grieves delivered an emotional and piano-heavy set; Prof performed atop three inflatables that were passed through the crowd. After the Rhymersayers’ resident bad boy admitted “There’s a 60 percent chance I’m gonna fuck this next song up,” I heard a middle-aged grumble behind me of “sounds like you been fuckin’ ‘em all up already” from an attendee who was clearly not the target audience for “Send Nudes.”
The smaller stage held a hell of a lineup on its own, from local notables like Dem Atlas to underground legends Hieroglyphics. Brother Ali stepped up that morning to fill in for Brockhampton, the up-and-coming rap “boy band” that cancelled amid allegations of sexual misconduct against member Ameer Vann. Even during the major sets on the main stages, the area by the cattle barn was crowded with sweaty humans—and as a bonus, there were far more shady spots to be claimed.
I don’t even want to think about how many great sets I missed while I was stationed at the Midway. The young, high-voiced Atlanta rapper J.I.D., a J. Cole discovery, floored me, leading the crowd through his ferocious track “Never.” Another standout, L.A. rapper Evidence boasted, “I'm celebrating globally/ You're celebrating locally.” But just like Rhymesayers, Soundset does both.
The grand finale: rap’s id and its superego
Soundset was already nearly a half-hour behind schedule by the time Tyler left the stage, yet still Migos was slow to appear. Punctuality is not among the platinum rap trio’s many positive attributes. In fact, Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff had been two hours late to a Council Bluffs show the night before, where they finally dashed through an abbreviated 45-minute set.
From the beginning mix of “Open It Up” and “Deadz,” the Mighty Midway burst into a throbbing mass chant-along. Migos songs are practically all hook, perfect for forming a dance circle with your friends and shouting at each other about stirring a simmering crockpot full of crack with a submachine gun. But as quick runs through older tracks like “Hannah Montana” and “Pipe It Up” built up to “T Shirt” and “Bad and Boujee,” Migos’ high-energy performance felt somehow distant. The precision tag-team interplay that’s so dynamic on their recordings lacked that spark of personality that makes for a great live performance.
And then, during “Walk It Like I Talk It,” the sound cut out. Migos had gone over their time, and the festival organizers weren’t having it. Or so we were left to surmise—there was no explanation, just near silence, the sight of three MCs shouting into dead microphones, and, eventually, an empty stage.
We barely had time to process this sudden de-Migosing before Logic materialized to make everything all right. The 28-year-old rapper exudes earnestness the way most of us sweat, and that can make his albums tough going for anyone worldly enough not to desire total immersion in radical empathy from their listening experience. Live, it’s a different story. It wasn’t that his undeniable stage presence and skills that overwhelmed my adult reservations. It’s that he’s so closely attuned the enthusiasms of his young fans, so eager to provide what they want from a rap show, that he made me jealous of the kids who didn’t share those reservations.
Logic is the coolest counselor at camp—maybe one year later you’d think he’s corny, but in the moment he’s life-changing. He began his set by instructing us to look to our right, and then to our left. (You know, like John Houseman in The Paper Chase.) The people we saw on either side of us? “They’re your motherfucking family,” he said. “I represent one thing: peace, love, and positivity,” he told us, and I was probably the only jerk who pedantically counted three things.
Cute and fit but not sexually aggressive, Logic could (kind of) get away with telling a young fan her name made it sound like she’d be “a hot soccer mom someday.” He totally got away with the supremely cornball move of asking another fan to form a hoop with her arms so he could take a shot with an imaginary basketball. Hip-hop calls itself a community, and Logic stretches that idea to its most ecumenically inclusive pop ends. Even if his set wasn’t your drug of choice, you could get a contact high from that performance.
Click here to see our photo slideshow of Soundset 2018