Jay-Z fulfilled his vision of bringing an electric and eclectic music festival to the heart of the city on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Saturday, headlining the first day of what he called the "first annual Made in America festival."
Jay-Z's razor-sharp and supremely confident performance, in which he enlisted the assistance of his partner in rhyme, Kanye West, as well as President Obama (in a prerecorded video), capped a nine-hour day filled with top-shelf performances from a range of rappers and electronic music acts and a smattering of indie rockers, giving Made in America a running start in carving out a niche as a uniquely urban-electronic mega-event in the crowded music festival season.
Jay-Z hit the stage at 9:30 p.m. sharp, opening with "Public Service Announcement." After the artist rapped the last line - "either love me or leave me alone" - Obama appeared on a video screen, referring to Jay-Z as "an artist that's always on my iPod," and calling the festival's curator a hardworking embodiment of "what Made in America means." Obama urged everybody, "whatever your politics or party, to vote this fall."
West was the highly anticipated unannounced guest who did show up. (Jay-Z's wife, Beyoncé - whom festival oddsmakers also had considered a lock to show up - was a no-show. In another surprise omission, the Jay-Z/Kanye West song "Made in America" was not performed, though a snippet of it could be heard on tape at the start of Jay-Z's set.)
West's appearance during the first encore - with Jay-Z not on stage - served as an extended promotion for West's G.O.O.D. Music label, with appearances by his signees Big Sean, Pusha T, 2Chainz, and Common. Earlier, Jay-Z had brought out his compadres, the Philadelphia rapper Freeway, Memphis Bleek, and Swizz Beatz.
A crowd of mostly mellow, under-30 music fans showed up for the first-ever paid event on the Parkway, as the music - which began at 2 p.m. under a red-hot sun with a blistering set by Texas bluesman Gary Clark Jr. - alternated between two main stages and went on continuously in a DJ tent heavy with dubstep and house music.
The car-clogged Parkway was effectively transformed into a pleasantly uncrowded site for a multistage festival.
The sight lines on the main Rocky Stage weren't great, what with the statue of George Washington atop a horse smack in front of the stage. But the tree-lined Eakins Oval proved a pleasant place to chill out on a blanket - or collapse if you had one too many Buds - and the oversized video screens showed action on both principal stages.
The crowd, many of whom wore red, white, and blue, smacked around an assortment of strangely small Made in America beach balls, and occasionally hollered out "Hova!" - one of Jay-Z's nicknames, short for Jay-hovah.
The first to take the stage, Clark, a taciturn Austin six-string slinger, didn't have a lot to say to the several thousand gathered before him in front of the Art Museum steps. No "How you doin', Made in America," for him. "It's a pleasure to be here" would have to do.
But that was OK, because Clark was willing to let his music do the talking. Fronting a powerful roadhouse quartet, he moved from John Lee Hooker blues boogie to supple Al Green soul before tearing the house down with "Bright Lights," making it plain why the 28-year-old rising star's name is often spoken of in the same sentences as such legends as Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix.
"You gonna know my name by the end of the night," he sang, but it only took till the middle of the afternoon for everyone at Made in America who was paying attention.
Bilingual Latin-pop heartthrob Prince Royce kicked off the action at the Liberty Stage, the second-largest stage. Royce - full name Geoffrey Royce Rojas - is a slick, baby-faced romancer. It wasn't the ladies and fellas he asked to make some noise, but his "Twitter followers and Facebook friends," and he subtly moved from Latin bachata to traditional R&B, sometimes within the same crowd-pleasing song, as on his 2010 hot version of Ben E. King's 1961 classic, "Stand By Me," which inspired much bashing around of Made in America's small beach balls.
The festival found its Saturday identity, which was by and large a hip-hop one, when Maybach Music Group took the Rocky Stage. Along with his cohorts - D.C. lyricist Wale and Philadelphia street rapper Meek Mill - the 300-pound Rick Ross specializes in bass-heavy, growling bangers that might be seriously menacing if they weren't so irresistibly catchy. The young, multiracial, ready-to-party crowd found their feet along with the bearded rapper - who did not, sorry to say, take his shirt off - as he testified to everyday "Hustling."
After Maybach Music Group, the racially mixed (though largely white) crowd made its way to see the pompadoured, pint-size, polymorphous musical dervish Janelle Monáe, as Jay-Z watched from the side of the stage. He was treated to a highly energized 45 minutes from Monáe, who came out dressed as a hooded Jedi knight before throwing off her robe to reveal her fancy restaurant food-server outfit - black slacks, white shirt, black suspenders.
Monáe moved from tightly coiled funk to prog-rock flourishes, and was in a constant state of motion, treating the crowd to a cover of the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back," as well as the show-stopping "Tightrope," an inspired, light-stepping James Brown rip. Of all the Saturday performances, it was Monáe's multifarious approach that best embodied Made in America's stated aim of breaking down musical barriers.
The New Orleans-born rapper Jay Electronica, who rhymed his own name with "Hanukkah," also paid tribute to the festival's headliner and guiding light. Those who did included the perky-yet-angsty Boston indie-pop band Passion Pit, whose stomping opening number, "Take a Walk," a saga of a struggling immigrant family's travails, is also featured in a Doritos TV commercial.
Passion Pit canceled a tour early this summer in support of its excellently fraught sophomore album, Gossamer, due to singer Michael Angelakos' mental-health issues, but on the Rocky Stage, the band sounded super-tight, and Angelakos was a gracious showman, even if his somewhat chipmunk-like voice remains an acquired taste.
The not-made-in-America Scotsman Calvin Harris closed out the night at the DJ tent. At the other main stages, fans saw an engaging pop-tronic set by the Swedish trio Miike Snow. On the second stage, dubstep kingpin Skrillex worked the glow-stick wavers into a frenzy, while hip-hop heads kicked back or took a bathroom break and waited for the star of the show.
Contact Dan DeLuca