Turns out we fretted about the wrong Lil guy not showing up at Soundset yesterday.
Wayne got here (finally). Uzi Vert didn’t (again). And we were blessed with a bonus Lil nobody expected: chart-topping troll with a heart of gold Nas X, who’s gonna take his one-trick-pony to the bank and ride till he can’t no more.
Still, none of the nearly 30,000 people milling around the State Fairgrounds all day Sunday could know for sure whether we’d finally get to glimpse the brilliant, wrecked, TC-avoidant Louisiana headliner, who’s cancelled last-minute on us three times since 2015. Certainly the Soundset handlers, pros that they are, had received some significant contractual guarantee from the MC, we reassured each other. They must be holding a seven-figure deposit, maybe even a beloved family member. One attendee said she’d heard that the state of Minnesota had threatened to somehow institute a lifetime ban against Weezy ever performing within our borders again if he flaked this time, which seemed at worst unconstitutional and at best—since keeping the guy out has never really been the problem—redundant.
But year 12 of Rhymesayers’ ever-growing hip-hop fest had offered enough beats, rhymes, and life to sate even the most omnivorous rap glutton by 8:45 even if Tunechi hadn’t materialized then. Female performers were more prominent (though next year how about Megan Thee Stallion and Rico Nasty and Leikeli47 and and and and?) while the dudes shaded maybe more aggro than usual. The dudes performing that is—I can’t speak to whatever was happening up near the stage (I know better than to go hard when going home’s not an option) but a few hundred yards back, Soundset’s typically friendly backyard-cookout-writ-large vibe was once more in effect, that pervasive sense that everyone realizes we’re not gonna make it till sundown together without a sizable dispersal of chill. And for once, the weather was ideal: No rain or heavy winds even threatened, and we were spared the solar broiling that caused a spate of teens to drop from pharmaceutically enhanced dehydration in 2018.
With cruel disregard for my 10 p.m. self, I showed up on the early side, at noon, to gorge on the kind of appetizer sampler that can serve as an entire meal, taking in three short sets from great local performers on the smaller Atmosphere & Friends stage. Dua Saleh is making music as exciting as anyone in Minnesota right now, a kind of parallel universe trip-hop offshoot that’s more personal and more playful than the norm, and great sets followed from dynamite St. Paul street rapper Cashinova and literal backpacker Student 1, who bounded about in paint-splattered overalls. (Fashion report: Overalls are in. I noticed this and barely even ever notice what I’m wearing myself, so you know it’s true. Also, I was expecting more cowboy hats.)
Having paid my respects to my neighbors and been assured that local hip-hop and R&B are scooting along handsomely, I was free to mostly concentrate on the bigger (though not exclusively non-Minnesotan) names at the far end of the Midway, where again acts alternated between two side-by-side stages with a pacing that was sometimes seamless and almost always brisk. An energetic set from the Compton rapper Buddy (more overalls, y’all) was an early highlight, though he rhymed “limousine” with “guillotine” with less revolutionary fervor than I might have preferred. In an orange bikini, pink fuzzy coat, and complicated hair, Doja Cat took the stage looking like a sexy emergency road flare, but though I love her stuff, her performance lagged behind her look.
As for the locals, next-gen Rhymesayers MC Dem Atlas fired up a wicked backing band, and during his set I caught one of the State Fair’s gopher mascots (what? No of course I don’t know which one) grooving along to “Perfect Day,” which only proves what we all surely already suspected: Even a promotional fair rat can’t resist a well-flipped Doobie Brothers sample. And Prof, still working that get-your-stepdad-a-beer look, once more showed that he understands how to exploit the scale of the event, rolling a literal red carpet across the crowd and boarding that large inflatable boat we love so much. “Before you know it you’re gonna be an old motherfucker,” he warned the youth whose seas he sailed upon, and I won’t take it personally.
At Soundset, as in life generally, a good rule of thumb is to find the girls with the coolest hair and follow them, though I didn’t need their cue to mosey away from Atlanta-based Trippie Redd, who was yowling something about suicide (didn’t catch if it was pro or con) and back to the Atmosphere & Friends stage for Tierra Whack. The Philly oddball genius’ rhymes were as bright as her yellow pants and the fluorescent orange sun painted around her left eye—she’s one of those brilliant weirdos pushing up from the bottom that rap can never survive without. The screen behind her read “Tierra Whack is currently performing,” and she sure as hell was.
As I hustled back to the Midway, the oft-troubled Ruff Ryder veteran DMX was barking “Where the Hood At?” (gotta say, it sure wasn’t anywhere in my immediate vicinity), wearing a Randy Moss jersey, and about to launch into “X Gonna Give it to Ya,” which was true. But soon stray talk of God turned into focussed talk of Jesus that I didn’t quite catch but am pretty sure was very similar to the things people usually say about Jesus. Y’all gonna make him act a fool, up in… heaven?
As always, what’s exciting about Run the Jewels is seeing two different but complementary performers enjoy the fact that they’ve found an ideal collaborative partner. And amid their thrilling bam-blam-wham, Killer Mike went off on a speech for abortion rights that ended with some decidedly non-complimentary “motherfuckers” and closed El-P’s set of instructions on how to most appropriately mosh with “Take care of each other and keep your hands off women.” If, like DMX, Run the Jewels has made the act of bludgeoning your neighbor into a fine paste sound effortlessly life-affirming though, the Beast Coast crew made it sound like a chore. With respect to Joey Bada$$’$ sweet Emancipation t shirt, I was not in the mood for that thing where you badger the audience with complaints like “Quite frankly I’m devastated by your reaction to this song.” I dunno man, I don’t need that kind of pressure in my life while I’m just waiting to see what Lil Nas X does.
Or, you know, doesn’t. The viral superstar once tweeted “at my first concert i’m gonna sit on stage tweeting the whole night with old town road on loop in the background” and while he didn’t follow through on that promise, he was probably earning something like $5K a minute for just putting on his hat and doing his little dance and allowing us to bask in the ridiculous joy “Old Town Road” inevitably inspires. Along with DaBaby, Nas was filling in last minute for Lil Uzi Vert, who you may remember from his 2017 hit "XO Tour Llif3" or from him not showing up to Soundset that year. Lil Nas X doesn’t exactly perform (he just kind of… is?) but “Old Town Road” is such a lightning-strike of pop glee that saying he didn’t put on much of a show is like complaining that a unicorn doesn’t gallop fast enough. A second song, “Panini,” was... fine, but the party picked back up when the DJ cut into “Thotiana” afterwards.
As for the allegedly sexy G-Eazy—you know what? I’m outta G-Eazy jokes. I’ve compared him to Andrew Dice Clay. I’ve compared him to a food allergy. I’ve publicly shamed his anonymous local sex partners. I got nothing else, people. If you wanna to drool over his leopard-print top and lanky stature, well, thirst is not rational, and the heart (OK, well, not the heart, we’re all adults here) wants what it wants. That still doesn’t explain why Karl-Anthony Towns joined him onstage though.
(Speaking of trash, the biggest excitement among the press in attendance, aside from the unexpected Lil Nas X showing, was news that the media tent was stocked with Slim Jims and Fruit Rollups. After gorging on swag snacks I barely had room in my beleaguered stomach for a “taco” that was really deep-fried curds, brats, and some kind of dough. Look, body, just be grateful I kept you relatively hydrated. Try not to break down too much over the next 25 years and I’ll eat a plant today. Deal?)
Per Soundset tradition, as the sun started to sink a stylish lady emerged on the main stage, and this year the luminous SZA was the queen of the dusk, a jacket draped over her bright pink outfit and the day’s third onstage set of overalls. (Hers were unclasped on one side, a look not everyone, and maybe not anyone but SZA, can pull off.) The Jersey-born alt-R&B star has made some unfortunate commercial accommodations in the time since her brilliant breakthough Ctrl. But she didn’t play that godawful Outkast-hobbling song from the Khaled album and she did sing Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me,” because SZA knows what SZA fans want. A clump of drunk women nearby were shouting her lyrics dramatically at one another, which was cool as hell; after they noticed me noticing them, they told me they’d all met that afternoon after coming to Soundset alone, so basically their day could be the subject of a SZA song.
Lil Wayne was 15 minutes late, a not-uncommon occurrence in the world of live rap, but for once the delay built anticipation rather than annoyance. His skin covered as much by tattoos as the earth is by water, his between-song patter displaying the effort the habitually mood-altered exert when they need to make a serious point, his hunched posture suggesting a constipation that the ease of his flow belied, the sight of Weezy finally appearing onstage didn’t inspire relief or excitement so much as a near-hallucinogenic disorientation—could that really be him or were we maybe hoodwinked by some next-level hologram?
Backed not just by a DJ but by one of those extraneous-solo-laden rock bands that infatuate many rappers (but making it work), the presumably corporeal Weezy didn’t stint on hits. He reached back to “Go DJ,” he licked us with “Lollipop” and dropped “A Milli” on us, and ran through his features from Chance’s “No Problems” and Drake’s “The Motto.” And of course he did that thing where were were all supposed to bring out our phones and bask in their illumination. “No, my phone be dead!” shouted a woman near me, on behalf surely of many others. It had been a long day.
Anyway, I can’t speak for Minnesota, but we’re square now, Wayne. Just don’t wait another eight years until you come back to town. Before we know it we’re gonna be old motherfuckers.
Click here to see a photo slideshow of the rappers and fans of Soundset