The 2018 Made in America Festival kicked off on its past, present, and future home of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway Saturday with more than 30 acts playing on five stages over the course of a 10-hour music marathon.
But the first day of the seventh annual edition of Jay-Z's Labor Day weekend festival was always going to be principally about just one act.
That would be Meek Mill, the embattled Philadelphia rapper who spent five months in a state prison for parole violations. Last year, he graced the MIA stage as Jay-Z's guest at the close of the 2017 festival.
The now-out-on-bail rap star wasn't the final headlining act on Made in America's Rocky Stage in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps. That was the massively if somewhat puzzlingly popular "Rock Star" rapper Post Malone. Nor was the rapper the most dazzling entertainer on an MIA stage: That was the polymorphous funkateer Janelle Monáe, who played immediately before Mill.
But the first day of MIA, which was breezy, blessedly free of rain, and felt not nearly as crowded as in years when superstars like Beyoncé and Rihanna drew upward of 50,000 to the Parkway — unquestionably belonged to Mill. The 31-year-old emcee took the stage to "Millidelphia," the summer anthem in which he pledges his love of the streets where he grew up and gets biblical in vowing that he will one day inherit the earth.
On this night, the city of Philadelphia, at least, was his. "This looks like my coming home party," he said, looking out at a sea of people that had been waiting for his arrival not only all day long, but throughout the months he spent in the State Correctional Facility in Chester when the Free Meek Mill movement became an international cause célèbre for those who believed his case is an example of the iniquities of the American criminal justice system.
Mill thanked those supporters in general and Jay-Z, Roc Nation exec Desiree Perez, and his billionaire friend Michael Rubin in particular, and in third person promised, "Meek Mill has dedicated himself to justice reform."
His set was a tightly wound hour in which he told the crowd that he was "from the other side of Philadelphia, the dirty part," and reminisced about riding pedal bikes down the Parkway as a boy. He also decried the senseless loss of life to gun violence that plagued the city "where people lose their lives because of dumb s- every day."
The between song moments were incessantly punctuated by the branding of a woman's voice sputtering out "M-M-Maybach Music," the company helmed by Miami rapper Rick Ross, which Mill is signed to.
The tough-voiced street rhymer brought out two 215 guests. The first was the terrific rising star rapper Tierra Whack, whose new Whack World album consists entirely of one-minute-long songs. Her time onstage to do "Hungry Hippo" lasted less then 60 seconds however. Rapper and singer PnB Rock also showed up to sweeten three songs, including their "Dangerous" collaboration.
All of this, of course, led to "Dreams and Nightmares," the 2011 song that has gained power as Mill's trademark song and was embraced by both the Sixers and Eagles in their recent winning seasons.
Mill gave a shoutout to both teams as the crowd got hyped to hear the hook-less, ever more intense growing verse, which seems almost prophetic in how it relates to Mill's career and life, now that he's out of prison and back up on stage.
"I used to pray for times like this, to rhyme like this," he rapped, while the entire crowd held their phones high and rapped right along with him. "So I had to grind like that, to shine like this." On Saturday night at Made In America, that moment had arrived.
After Meek Mill's set ended, there was a bona fide stampede to the Liberty Stage for Zedd, the German DJ who unfailingly has a Top 40 hit every summer. He was brought to Made in America to do one thing and one thing only — throw a wild dance party on the Parkway for festivalgoers to rid themselves of their last remaining bits of energy. It worked as boyfriends balanced their girlfriends on their shoulders and friends squeezed their way to the front of the stage. He cranked out hit after hit, including "Beautiful Now," his collaboration with Selena Gomez and John Bellion, and remixes of Childish Gambino's "This is America," Dua Lipa's "One Kiss" and Shawn Mendes' "Lost in Japan." (The thing about repurposing so many other Top 40 hits is that you never run out of material.) No one was looking for originality — just danceable ear candy — and Zedd delivered with giant LED screens and puffs of fog.
Following Zedd was headliner Post Malone, who has built a massive following that began with his Sixers great evoking 2015 hit "White Iverson" and continuing with his current album Beerbongs & Bentleys. He represents a new level of mediocrity among Made in America headliners, a clear step down from last year's not great Saturday night bill topper J. Cole.
Malone — born Austin Richard Post — builds his sound on the sped up high hat production sound that is a hallmark of now commercially dominant trap music. The not-one-hit-wonder gold toothed rapper does have a talent for melody that carries such hits as "Rockstar" and "Better Now." His sound grows oppressively unvaried on repeat however, and his stage act needs work, particularly his witless patter which involves f-bomb dropping to no point or purpose.
Janelle Monáe opened her return date at Made in America — she played the initial iteration of the fest in 2012 — with a voice reciting the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence that was signed 242 years just across town from the Liberty Stage, where she stood in a red, white, and black ensemble.
The musically omnivorous funkateer began with "Crazy, Classic, Life," the mission statement of inclusion from her 2018 album Dirty Computer, in which she declares: "I am not an American nightmare, I am the American Dream."
What followed was far and away the most musically diverse and compelling show of the day as Monáe moved stylistically from kinetic funk workouts to soaring celebrations of sexual freedom, complete with multiple costumes changes — including the famous "pussy pants" she debuted in the video clip for "Pynk," her collaboration with Canadian producer Grimes.
Highlights were many, from the high energy workout "Electric Lady," to the power ballad "Prime Time," which she played out as a celebration of pride among her LGBT fans in the crowd.
The message was perfectly distilled in an intro to "I Like It," where Monáe declared, "We believe in embracing the things that make us unique, even if it makes other [expletive] uncomfortable." And it reached its musical peak with a trio of funk workouts toward the end of the set. Those started with the Prince-inspired "Make Me Feel," in which Monáe showed off her fleet-footed dance moves and added an homage to James Brown with a snippet of the Godfather of Soul's "I Got the Feeling." That was followed by an "I Got the Juice" in which she brought several highly skilled dancers on stage with her (including two women in wheelchairs) and her tiptoeing "Tightrope" from her 2010 album The ArchAndroid, in which she offered the crowd another safe piece of advice: "Life is all about balance, Philly!"
With the whole MIA shebang running half an hour late, always genial Bronx rapper Fat Joe slid into a Rocky Stage slot an hour later than scheduled.
Dressed in a baby blue track suit adorned with the New York skyline, Joe — full name Joseph Anthony Cartagena — held down the obligatory old school rap slot at MIA, a position of some importance in the curatorial plans of Jay-Z, always a man to respect his forebears. Along with his sidekick Big Lou, who turned his four years of still being alive since being diagnosed with cancer into a rallying cry for the crowd to get behind, Joe worked the crowd like a pro, nodding to his late compadre Big Pun with "I'm Not a Player" and sending them off to Janelle Monáe on the adjacent Liberty Stage with "All the Way Up."
Tekashi 6ix9ine was curiously absent for his scheduled 4:15 p.m. set on the Rocky Stage, not appearing until 5:45 p.m. when Fat Joe was slated to perform.
Earlier, rappers Trouble, who played previously on the much smaller Tidal Stage, and 19-year-old Roddy Ricch, who wasn't on the bill at all, performed during Tekashi's slot, to the disappointment of fans (they only got excited when headliner Meek Mill came on stage for a hot second to spray what looked like champagne on the crowd). "It's typical 6ix9ine behavior," said Terrence Smith, 28, of Pittsburgh, while still waiting on the rapper. With the no-show, Smith said, "I wouldn't come out of my way to see him again."
When word spread that Tekashi was performing, an army of fans who had given up on the rapper turned around, looked at one another, and then shouted "It's 69!" before sprinting en masse back toward the Art Museum steps
Tekashi, whose real name is Daniel Hernandez, drove the sizable crowd into a frenzy, even before the famously face-tattooed, loudly shouting rapper had stripped down to a pair of blue boxer shorts and a Mexican flag, which covered the tat of the number 69 on his stomach.
The reasons to disapprove of Hernandez are legion, whatever you think of the rapper's rainbow-colored stringy hair. The most notorious is a 2015 charge for having sexual contact with a 13-year-old girl and distributing a video of the incident online. He later pleaded guilty to one felony count in the case.
The air of danger and transgression that surrounds Tekashi is surely a big part of his popularity. The rapper was arrested in July for an incident in which he allegedly choked a 16-year-old in Houston, and also in July, he was robbed and severely beaten in Brooklyn.
His set on Saturday was fired up with rugged energy, if not musical subtlety. He paid tribute to the late rapper XXX Tentacion, who was killed in Florida in June, took to the crowd to rap, and repeatedly thanked Philadelphia for having him. Before finishing with his breakout 2017 hit "Gummo," he said, "This is so special to me, this is the first festival I ever got invited to play. I don't know who it is that runs Made in America, but thanks to them." Yo, Tekashi, I guess you missed it somehow, but the guy who runs Made in America is Jay-Z.
In stark contrast was 6lack, who preceded Tekashi. 6lack is part of a new group of emerging rappers — the sensitive ones who don't shy away from dropping lyrics about their failed relationships and their failure to get over them. Late Saturday afternoon, he dropped a set of his most popular tracks, including "Ex Calling" and "OTW," to a rowdy crowd — at one point, a fan collapsed and had to be escorted out by police flagged down by fans. At one point, 6lack's DJ cautioned a fan who was climbing a pole to get a better view. 6lack told the crowd he wasn't actually supposed to perform because he "f- up his vocal chords," and that his doctor was going to "kill him when he found out," but "there was no way in hell I was passing this up," he said. 6lack closed with "PRBLMS," his biggest hit, to plenty of appreciative cheers from the crowd.
He also promised to come back and play a proper show sometime soon.
Juice Wrld, who is more akin to 6lack than Tekashi, pulled hundreds down to the Tidal Stage. The Chicago emcee released his freshman album earlier this year, Goodbye & Good Riddance, showcasing his moody style, which some have called "emo rap." Festivalgoers climbed trees and backs for better views. He closed his set with the single "Lucid Dreams," which fans sang word for word.
With high volume hip-hop and clattering EDM coming at you from all sides and fans bumping into one another as they scurry across the Ben Franklin Parkway streetscape, Made in America isn't the most relaxing place to spend an end-of-summer afternoon.
For a short while on Saturday though, MIA became a lovely place to chill. Part of that had to do with Sabrina Claudio, who without question had the most alluring voice heard on the festival grounds as it got going on its first day, drawing listeners on as they moved from one stage to the next.
The Miami-based R&B singer — dressed in a gold velvet two-piece — did her best to make her bedroom-vibey selections appeal to the sweaty crowd below. (Claudio opted for a topknot to deal with the humidity and heat. "I'm sweating balls," she said as she took her first water break.) Her vocals were flawless, and the more relaxed pace of her set was a welcome respite. Claudio got her start last year with Confidently Lost, an EP play curated from tracks she had uploaded to SoundCloud, and given the response of the crowd to her last and biggest song, a sultry track titled "Belong to You," you should expect to see her emerge onto the alt-R&B scene in the next year.
That becalmed mood was maintained by Saba, the Chicago rapper who played a late lazy afternoon set at the Skate Stage. His show got underway about a half hour late — delayed by technical and travel difficulties, he said. It was worth the wait, though: Saba first came to prominence in association with Chance the Rapper, and he's definitely recommended if you like his fellow Chicagoan. His carefully calibrated set started out low-key and jazzy, and his songs from this year's Care For Me cast a melancholy spell.
As his set progressed though, it grew more aggressive and intense, raising his voice — and calling the audience to attention — with rage.
The Made in America festival — which for the first time, does not have "Budweiser" as a first name — kicked off in style on Saturday afternoon with Amara La Negra, the Afro-Latina singer and reality-TV star of Love & Hip-Hop: Miami. With her trademark outsize Afro and plenty of party-starting attitude, she packed a 15-minute set with plenty of action on the Tidal Stage. With the statue of William Penn atop City Hall towering behind her, the entertainer born Diana de Los Santos and her co-ed crew of dancers gave the teenage crowd hip-grinding lessons and elicited cries of praise such as "You slay!" and "Queen!" from many of the already well lubricated MIA goers.
La Negra was followed by West Philadelphia rapper Armani White on the Skate Stage, cozily located near a canopy of trees on the northeastern edge of the sprawling site, near the Cause Village, which this year features two purple pyramid public art works.
The 22-year-old White impressed, drawing a big crowd with a brassy old school soul-flavored sound, fronting a band that featured a live drummer, sax player, and three backup vocalists. He quickly tutored the crowd on how to rap along to "Public School," his new song about his father's trials and tribulations that's earned him a spotlight of attention on Jay-Z's Tidal streaming service, and worked the crowd with aplomb while distinguishing himself as a sharp-tongued left-of-center emcee with pop potential. One to watch.