Is Made in America a world class music festival?
Jay-Z's Labor Day weekend gathering, which wrapped up on Sunday, has taken over the Ben Franklin Parkway seven years running now, and after the city came to terms with entertainment company Roc Nation this summer, it's now set to maintain its position in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's steps for years to come.
Earlier this summer, though, the festival's continued occupation of the Parkway was under threat when word got out of the city's plan to move it off the grand boulevard, and Jay-Z seemed ready to take his party and go home if he were not going to get to hold his festival on the most desirable real estate in the city where America was made.
That threat stoked fears that a glamorous event that's an economic engine for the city and a major tourist attraction on an otherwise sleepy weekend (as well as an F-bomb-dropping noisy nuisance for neighbors, commuters and surrounding cultural institutions) could be lost in an unforced error by the Kenney administration.
The idea that letting MIA go would be a major loss for the city is predicated on the idea that it's a unique, world-class event that brings top-drawer talent to town in a way that Philadelphians should realize they're lucky to have.
So now that we've got another one of them under our collective belts, the question is: Is Made in America really all that great?
The answer this weekend is that a lot of time it was — and never more so than in the middle of that Sunday night run when Lamar was on the stage.
Kung Fu Kenny had already played the Philadelphia environs twice this outdoor concert season: once at the BB&T Pavilion in Camden and again at the Firefly festival in Delaware.
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But an artist of the caliber of Lamar — who became the first non-classical or jazz artist to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for music earlier this year — is always welcome.
And that was particularly true this year — the Compton, Calif., rapper was a late add, clearly brought on to goose ticket sales, which were down this year, news that may be bad for concert promoters but made the site much more comfortable to navigate, without any real threat of being crushed to death. Having drunken MIA goers blindly stumble into you, though — there's always a high risk of that.
Lamar's set was a taut, spring-loaded affair, a mere 50 minutes that nevertheless managed to survey his career, pulling from his breakout 2012 bildungsroman good kid, MAAD City with such songs as "Swimming Pools (Drank)," as well as hitting the Black Lives Matter anthem "Alright" from 2015's jazzy To Pimp a Butterfly and several cuts from DAMN., last year's third master stoke in a row.
Lamar was sharp-eyed and precise in his language and expert flow as always, and while the 31-year-old rapper is not one to pander or make excessive small talk, he did take the time to talk up Philadelphia as a source of tremendous talent before bringing out singer and rapper Bri Steves for a showcase on "Jealousy," much like Meek Mill did for Tierra Whack and PnB Rock on the first night of the festival.
What his presence really did though, was boost Sunday's lineup from solidly respectable, with slick R&B singer Miguel, tough talking rapper Pusha-T and ascending pop star Alessia Cara also on the bill, to the level of being, well, world class.
MIA isn't the kind of giant festival where major acts overlap with each other with a lineup that so mind-bogglingly overloaded with talent that you wind up missing big acts that play simultaneously. The two main stages are a short walk away from one another, and on Sunday night, it was quite manageable to take in Miguel's sterling set and Lamar's electric one and Diplo's party-starting DJ performance without breaking a sweat on an evening that grew breezier at it went along. (Diplo — who went to Temple, started DJing Hollertronix parties at the Ukrainian American Citizens' Association's in Northern Liberties and created his Mad Decent brand at a former mausoleum on 12th and Ridge — brimmed with Philly pride, donning an Eagles cap and often shouting out the city: "I started my career 10 years ago in Philadelphia so it feels so good to come back," he said.)
Nicki Minaj closed out the show on Sunday, taking the stage as the first female rapper to ever headline the festival. The Trinidadian-American spit fire was about 20 minutes late in taking the stage, but Diplo covered for her, dragging his own set on like a pro to keep the crowd sated until Minaj took the stage.
When she did, the rapper gave the video screen watching concert goers and those watching the Tidal live stream at home an eyeful of a surprise when she spilled out of her dress during "Majesty," from her new album Queen. Made in America, it took seven years but you've had your first wardrobe malfunction!
The set that followed was largely sluggish and lackluster in its staging. Minaj skills are never in doubt, but her show was poorly paced, and only really picked up when notorious rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine blundered onstage to inject the show with much-needed energy. Rapper A$AP Ferg's was also a guest but didn't have an equally positive effect.
She did find a groove — and a connection — though with Philly rapper Lil Uzi Vert, who performed the sultry duet of "The Way Life Goes" with her as well as his own haunting nihilistic megahit "XO Tour Llif3."
Made in America is far from perfect. More musical variety would be nice. With Budweiser gone this year, there looked to be no diminishing of drunkenness, with Coors and Corona and lots of mix drinks stepping into the fold (not too mention McDonald's and Abercrombie & Fitch adding to the corporate branding, along with lots of local food trucks).
Saturday's bill was not as as musically strong as Sunday's, with headliner Post Malone qualifying as a major dud, and the momentous occasion of Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill playing his first show since being released from prison and the marvelous Janelle Monáe carrying the day.
But for all it's flaws and imperfections — including the big trash strewn mess that's made of the site, despite the hard working efforts of the clean up crew during the fest — Made in America remains a one of a kind event, in part because of the talent it attracts and the cityscape it takes place in. Seven years in, Philadelphia is lucky to still have it.
Miguel, the Los Angeleno nuevo soul pop R&B hyphenate who played the Liberty Stage as the sun set behind the Art Museum, had a tall task ahead of him Sunday evening.
Not only did the silky singing songwriter need to serve as the warm-up to the heavy hitting rappers — Kendrick Lamar and Nicki Minaj — set to follow him on the main stage. He also had to compete with the memory of Janelle Monáe, the even more eclectic (and electric) talent who held down the identical spot the previous evening.
He did more than fine. Like Monáe, Miguel — last name Pimentel — doesn't concern himself with genre boundaries, and looks to Prince for inspiration as he pursues his idea of what sexy is. By nature, however, he's a lover man, a modernization of bedroom soul traditions, and he uses that as his musical starting point, as opposed to Monáe's cyber robot funk.
He stepped lively in a pair of lime-green trousers as he paraded through an energetic and superbly paced set that goosed the crowd with such erotic celebrations of excess as "Green Light" and "How Many Drinks?" as well as a song with an unprintable title that was similar in its sentiment to the schoolyard chant he led the crowd in: "If you're nasty and you know it, claps you hands!" (He also reminded his male fans that consent is sexy: "Fellas, keep your hands to yourself if you don't have permission.")
Miguel also got serious, as he talked about his Mexican father and African American mother, and how his mixed heritage has led him to believe, he said before "Ride This Wave," that "I've never felt like a time of unity was more important." Miguel first played MIA in 2013, at a time his talent was already abundantly apparent, but his set on Sunday showed how far he's progressed as an entertainer since then.
Conventional wisdom has it that Jay-Z's Made in America has given up on being a truly musically diverse festival as it has aged, jettisoning rock headliners and deemphasizing indie aspirations as it has settled into its maturity as a hip-hop and contemporary R&B fest reflective of the tastes of the man in charge.
True enough as far as it goes. But if MIA is supposed to be a place where it's no longer cool to rock out, no one told Turnstile, the super heavy and super tight guitar band from Baltimore (and also Washington and Ohio, as singer Brendan Yates pointed out) that set the Skate stage alight as the sun was dipping low Sunday evening at MIA.
Yates is a roaring vocalist and high-jumping frontman who came racing from the wings just as his four band mates slammed into the first of a series of crunching riffs on songs from their 2018 album Time & Space, which happens to feature MIA Sunday night EDM headliner and canny talent spotter Diplo on one track. The moment Turnstile landed onstage, a mosh pit exploded like ping pong balls in a lottery machine in front of the stage, and the energy did not let up throughout the band's 40 minute set. Turnstile, which has just a hint of rap-rock bands such as Rage Against the Machine in its humanistic punk rock politics, was among a handful of hard-hitting guitar bands that kept rock alive on the MIA side stages this year's, along with Code Orange, White Reaper and others.
Canadian pop singer Alessia Cara, 22, provided a dose of chill pop before the rap heavyweights of the night on the Rocky Stage, opening with her 2017 hit, "Here," and performing a number of tracks off her debut album, Know-It-All, including "Wild Things" and "Scars to Your Beautiful." The crowd grooved along as the sun set but this act was really a placeholder until Kendrick Lamar kicks off the last three powerhouse acts — including Diplo and Nicki Minaj — of the night.
Cara is an example of how Jay-Z is willing to give significant slots to artists who are up and coming that they might not have been able to get at other festivals. Although that means that audiences are a little disappointed by the lack of entertainment factor, it allows these artists to get valuable face time with a huge fan base.
During "Seventeen," Cara, who demonstrated her impressive vocal range, played clips of herself as a child on the screen behind her, an adorable touch to a sentimental song. But the crowd favorite was unequivocally "How Far I'll Go" from Disney's Moana — the crowd sang along to every lyric, hanging off poles. She clearly enjoyed herself, dressed for the weather in bike shorts and sneakers, which made it impossible not to groove along to her feel-good tracks.
Cara was preceded by fellow Canadian Daniel Caesar. Early into Caesar's performance, the singer made apparent motions for his mic to be turned up. The crowd is fortunate for that. He sang his trademark ballads beautifully from the Liberty Stage. Caesar has received praise for being among a cohort of acts rejuvenating R&B. With soulful keys backing him, the arrangement for his first song, "Japanese Denim," sounded even more D'Angelo reminiscent than it did on the studio version.
Rather than quickly moving through deeply abbreviated versions of his songs as many festival sets do, Caesar performed slow burning renditions. Most selections hailed from his 2017 freshman studio album, Freudian. Caesar counted on the Cadaro Tribe for background vocals, the same collective he employed for the album. For "Best Part," his popular duet with R&B singer HER, he fed the audience lyrics to H.E.R.'s opening verse, as he has on tour, eliciting a lovely sing-along.
Jay Park, a South Korean rapper based in Seattle, drew one of the most passionate and engaged crowds yet to his Sunday afternoon set at the Tidal Stage. Park, who began his career with a Korean boy band named 2PM, is a talented rapper, singer and dancer. He swapped between the three comfortably, keeping crowds entertained during fast-paced rap tracks such as "FSU" and a new song he debuted with fellow Seattle rapper Avatar Darko, as well as more pop-centric numbers such as "Yacht" and "Me Like Yuh."
"I'm the only person who got on a plane and flew from another country to perform here," Park said before launching into "Soju," a rap about Korea's favorite liquor. "So let me show you my country." His fans, who ranged from ones that had followed him since the beginning of his career to first-time listeners, lapped it all up, speaking to the increasing global popularity of Korean music.
Why was it important to pay the utmost attention at the Made in America to what Pusha-T calls "The Daytona Experience"?
Because Daytona, Pusha-T's Kanye West-produced album that came out in May, is the best album of any kind to come out in 2018.
Said who? Said Pusha, several times while the veteran rhymer and former member of Clipse was bringing a surfeit of self-confidence to the Rocky Stage for the second consecutive year.
The tenacious and pugnacious King Push paid respects to MIA's host city. "Great to be back in Philly," he said. "Definitely a rap capital." He also said the city was the first to recognize the value of the accomplishments of Clipse, which he led along with his brother Gene "No Malice" Thornton.
Pusha came out swinging with "If You Know You Know," from Daytona, a song that makes an argument common to many of his songs: If you're really aware of what's up, you know that Pusha consistently delivers the goods, almost without fail. That was certainly true of the truly banging set that followed, which included the Drake diss "Infrared" ("How could you ever right these wrongs, when you don't even write your songs?") as well as several collaborative tracks he's been on as part of West's GOOD music label, such as "Don't Like."
L.A. crooner Ty Dolla $ign has been lacing with rappers with catchy hooks for nearly a decade, but proved Sunday why he's still a rising star. The hip hop singer, who has collaborated on hits for Fifth Harmony and Saturday's headliner Post Malone, has gained a reputation as a songwriter. Sound problems plagued his 30-minute set, an issue he counterbalanced with charm.
"We gotta go a capella," Ty said near the set's start.
"Let's just do pineapple," he advised his band, punctuating his ad libs like someone might if they had only friends and a cafeteria table to make a song.
As the sound improved, the rapper went out into the crowd. He offered the audience a shot and took a hit off a fan's blunt, and played hits, including "Or Nah" and "Paranoid." He also played bass with a funky twang, a welcome reminder that his father was a member of funk bank Lakeside.
Ty, who changed mics twice, managed to deliver an impressive set in spite of it all. But the audio problems were disappointing. If Ty pulls out his bass, we all want to be able to hear it.
Ty wasn't the only performer plagued by sound issues. Clairo's set was delayed because of technical difficulties, which meant that for the first 15 minutes of her "set," the groups clustered before the stage were stuck listening to random drum beats, a metronome ticking and keyboard tuneups. The Massachusetts-based electropop singer first started gaining recognition when her bedroom pop song, "Pretty Girl," went viral on YouTube, and she released her debut EP, diary 001, earlier this year. Taking the sound problems in stride, the singer talked to the crowd about how nice the weather was and lamented not having any jokes before playing her first song, "B.O.M.D."
"This is awful," Clairo remarked with a laugh in the middle of the track. "But we'll keep going. …" (The crowd cheered regardless.) She persevered, but grew visibly annoyed when the sound issues didn't get better after two more songs, saying that this was the worst sound she's ever had in her life. Eventually, Clairo gave up trying to sing and asked the crowd to dance instead while she rushed through her hits, ending with the pleasantly mellow "Better." No one could blame her. She concluded by declaring this the worst show she'd ever played.
The micro-genre of emo cloud-rap got its due on the Skate Stage on Sunday in the person of Wicca Phase Springs Eternal, the project of Scranton songwriter Adam McIlwee, the former Tigers Jaw singer/guitarist who left that emo outfit in 2013. With Wicca Phase, McIlwee is still all up in his feelings, but his droney vocals are rapped as well as sung and set to atmospheric electro beats. The highlight of his Sunday afternoon set was a duet on the love song "Overdose" with Lil' Zubin, the Philadelphian born Kevin O'Neill who the Fader has called "emo-rap's sleeping giant" and who also teams with McIlwee in the bummed out supergroup Misery Club.
The Philadelphia talent portion of Made in America 2018 Day Two opened with Zah Sosaa, the 16-year-old North Philly rapper who is in the same chronological cohort as the audience members bouncing up and down in unison in Sixers jerseys and short shorts at the front of the stage.