Soundset's ninth edition, held Sunday at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds instead of the usual Canterbury Park, was yet again a bustling, diverse, and unique success.
The new space felt more streamlined and accessible, making the choices of who to see more difficult than ever. This was the best Soundset yet, and the new location is a keeper.
The organizers at Rhymesayers Entertainment took on the daunting task of selling a hip-hop festival to a wide range of audiences. They crafted a particularly strong lineup that managed to reflect the breadth of the culture about as well as possible. Hip-hop pioneer Marley Marl and 20-year-old Post Malone being on the same bill certainly indicates the spectrum of representation.
Those who arrived early had three of the best local DJs to choose from, including Shannon Blowtorch, Just Nine, and DJ TIIIIIIIIIIP, with TIIIIIIIIIIP's crowd-pleasing jams working especially well on the main stage. The exceptional energy of host Dolo Get It Poppin' made it the place to be if you wanted to start the day off hyped.
The Fifth Element stage hosted a number of the day's local acts, including Baby Shel. The impeccable chopper made sure to represent for his Red Lake Reservation and Minnesota rap in general, eventually bringing out cohorts J. Plaza, Metasota, and Mike the Martyr to round out the performance.
Afterwards, Lexii Alijai (to whom, just for the record, the local press has not exactly turned a blind eye) got anticipatory cheers from her many supporters that drowned out the introduction from host Heather B. Alijai's soft-spoken yet tightly executed performance clearly touched a number of people. Even in the nascent stages of her live performances, she has a knack for making heartfelt downtempo music work in a crowd setting, and Shaun Sloan's surprise guest appearance helped amp up the people even further.
But it was Finding Novyon who earned the biggest reaction out of the pool of local contenders, as he ran through a relentless set of bangers that emphasized bass and stage energy and captured the eager audience's rapt attention. Allan Kingdom showed up almost too late for his guest verse on "Lots," but came through in the clutch and closed out a vibrant set.
Later on, Chicago's Noname Gypsy, clad in a Bob Seger shirt for some reason — a reference to his song "Hey Gypsy", perhaps? Another inclusion to the day's many examples of normcore fashion? — brought an understated vibe that showcased her slam-influenced take on Chicago's evolving hip-hop sound. Running through her originals and prominent Chance the Rapper guest verses, she fit perfectly with the intimate stage.
Hanging out at the Fifth Element stage meant missing Murs and 9th Wonder, as well as Aesop Rock and Homeboy Sandman's collaborative effort, Lice. Accepting that accurately covering this event was an impossible task, I tried my hand at bouncing between stages, which meant catching just enough of GoldLink, Mick Jenkins, and Raury to be able to say nearly nothing of value about any of them.
All struck me as charismatic performers, especially Raury, who managed to compete with the Roots (who played simultaneously) with his rock-influenced live show and shirtless abandon. But a back-to-back block of Anderson .Paak, Lizzo, and Danny Brown is hard to pull away from, and I wound up at the main stage for much of the middle portion of the day.
Considering the limitations of not being able to be in multiple locations at once, here's a rundown of the highlights from Soundset 2016:
Anderson .Paak is a natural star and a rare gift to rap. The multi-talented artist and dynamic performer straddles multiple styles with a breezy approach that feels loose but is impressively precise. His band, the Free Nationals, perfectly mimicked the amazing production on cuts from Malibu and .Paak's NxWorries collaboration with Knxwledge.
Those collabs bring together funk, rock, hip-hop, and soul so smoothly there's no clear distinctions, and he floated over every track with a frontman's swagger and an auteur's texture. Drumming, rapping, and rhapsodizing about his first pair of Jordans simultaneously was a feat he made look as natural as speaking. It's going to be exciting watching him grow from here.
Lizzo played next and dominated the stage with her gigantic beats and physical stage performance, giving her dancers ample opportunity to showcase their skills. The Minneapolis MC/singer brought feminist themes of self-love, empowerment, and solidarity to a space desperately in need of those things. Her post-Beyoncé approach to singing, dancing, and rapping felt like more than the sum of its parts and seemed to deeply connect with many.
Unveiling some new songs and reaching back to GRRRL PRTY classics, Lizzo also danced to a medley of current chart-topping female artists as a way to both proclaim women's hold on the culture and to insert herself into the conversation.
Afterward came Detroit's Danny Brown, a surefire party initiator who has evolved in interesting ways. Brown stands among the best rap artists to navigate the tricky space of writing songs for live performance versus for albums, having crafted a good number of festival-ready bangers that fit seamlessly into his larger narrative arc.
The drift toward drug-addled mayhem music comes with the intentional personal shift away from his former self. While his trademark punchlines and manic energy remain wholly intact, few glimpses into the struggles of his early life come through in his stage performances of this size, save for closing tracks "Grown Up" and "25 Bucks."
It worked perfectly for this setting, as the escapism was exactly what people were looking for. Plus, it's always important to hear songs that talk about the drugs you're currently doing. (Side note: There were more than a few random instances of people spontaneously passing out or being dragged out of crowds by friends. I think D.A.R.E. needs to be a program that teaches you how to do drugs, safely, so there are fewer instances like this.)
I Self Devine and Muja Messiah took over the entire stretch of the Fifth Element stage with their five-piece backing band — Proper-T, Lady Midnight, J-Hard, Myke Shevy, and DJ Just Nine — as 9th House. The group played the smooth, jazzy, and spaced-out counterpoint to Danny Brown's turn-up music. Muja stunted as always in a purple kimono, and ran through a solid string of multi-layered tracks and tag team verses with the equally legendary I Self.
Pharoahe Monch took to the smaller stage and proved himself as one of the all-time greats. That's thanks to a laundry list of songs old and new that all featured intricate concepts and powerful expressivity, with insane verbal dexterity being the bare minimum requirement. Letting the beat drop during "Clap (One Day)" so the crowd could clap along to his a capella made for a powerful moment, up until the tempo drifted as it is wont to do when you have crowds clap along.
DJ Marley Marl
One of the true pioneers of hip-hop, DJ Marley Marl, was spinning classic New York records in the Essential Elements stage, where producers had been playing their beats throughout the day for the Last of the Record Buyers showcase. The finesse and skill the forefather of sampling displayed struck everyone in the thick crowd — young and old, good at dancing and not. The energy showcased during his fairly straightforward mix of well-known old-school records was incredible. Definitely among the highlights of the day.
On the other end of the spectrum was Miami's Pouya, who hit the Fifth Element stage to a large crowd of young folks and got big reactions for whatever reason. His style is kind of like a trappy Sean Anonymous, if Sean wrote songs about choking women. It's mostly just innocuously "dangerous" and tasteless vocals over formulaic beats to appeal to dirtbag druggy youth. But the unchecked misogyny needs to be dissected before anyone accidentally learns anything from this intentionally mindless sound.
After a quick cleanse at Crazy Legs and the Rock Steady Crew, I went to check out Common, who helped define what's called "conscious rap" with early records like Like Water for Chocolate and Resurrection. Common's got his own madonna/whore complex stuff to work through as well (as on the admittedly great song "Testify," which Common made sure to let us know was about the "thots" that are different from those "good girls that hold you down").
But overall he was there to prove he still had the sauce as a rapper, sporadically dropping freestyles that name-checked Minnesota icons like Prince, the Twins, and Gordon Parks.
I caught the front end of Post Malone's set, and the whole Fifth Element section was about as thick with people as was possible. Thankfully, his music is low-key and Enya-ish enough to not incite a circle pit like Pouya was actively trying to do. A giant crowd with no real knowledge of pit etiquette could've gotten ugly.
Malone played his 50 Cent remix and his Stevie Nicks remix back to back, which sort of, to me, establishes that you haven't quite found what your sound is yet exactly. But oops, it's too late you're famous and Justin Bieber wants you to open for him so you better have some material. But the crowd seemed to dig it, so what do I know? I guess the "Windowshopper" song itself is a diss to me and other bloggers anyway.
I actually wouldn't have minded a Watch the Throne-style infinite repeat of Post Malone's "White Iverson" for 45 minutes, but I didn't stick around long enough to hear the hit, and several others seemed to be leaving en masse around when Atmosphere was starting. Atmosphere forewent their usual headlining slot, giving space to the Roots, Future, and A$AP Rocky and tightening their own set. Slug wore a "Jill Stein 2016" shirt and ad-libbed transitions about cow poop, and also rapped really well.
The Roots were the Roots, which is to say they were amazing but they didn't play that many songs by the Roots. The extended jams were insanely impassioned, gliding between genre reference points and extended solos and breathless vocal takes that never lowered in energy.
Black Thought looked soaked by the end. Guitarist Kirk Douglas put in an epic closing guitar solo that featured everything from synchronized scatting to one-handed riffing. He seemingly channeled the aura of Prince, for whom the group had just done an incredible tribute that included Jeremy Ellis' chaotic MPC manipulation of "Let's Go Crazy."
It was a spectacular display of instrumentation that could've used more rap. I dipped away and caught part of Jay Rock's set, and the TDE rapper is on some classically minded gangster shit in a very satisfying way. One of the better performances of the day.
Next, Sway Calloway introduced Future as "one of the most flattered artists in the industry," referencing just how often he's imitated. And as the DJ ran through some of the Atlanta trap maven's early work prior to the set, it was clear why: The sheer number of styles and innovations to his name through his career is staggering.
The performance itself rested too heavily on this fact. As Future cycled through truncated songs from his multiple mixtapes, it was clear the audience was going to be doing most of the vocalizing. There's no need for someone with as much great material as Future has to have to ask the audience to react.
"Which side is the livest?"-type stuff stifled most of the actual music; that crowd response technique really should've went the way of stating your name and what you're here to say by now. But regardless, he played nonstop great songs, which is insanely rare.
"We're gonna run out of time before we run out of hits," Future bragged at one point, and he was right: Between his songs with Drake, his pair of 2016 mixtapes, his throwback joints like "Racks" and "Magic," Dirty Sprite 2, his string of classic projects from last year, and his collaborations with other artists, he could've just kept going conceivably forever. A modicum of extra effort would've easily propelled the set above the rest.
A$AP Rocky is a great example of the effort factor, turning in a better performance with weaker songs as the festival's climax. Cultivating an arc that slid between moods and visual ideas, the set was an appropriate closer: big, fun, and energetic. Rocky went among all his projects, which swing drastically between moods at times, but he made it all work as a whole piece.
There were plenty of shout-outs to the late A$AP Yams, including a sample from Future's "Slave Master," which features a name drop and a codeine reference (naturally). Danny Brown jumped onstage to clown for a minute, and the A$AP Mob (sans Ferg) did backing vocals throughout.
He also played "Jump Around" and "Smells Like Teen Spirit," which I believe are legally obligated to feature in at least three artist's sets at any hip-hop festival. (Someone needs to write a modern song that asks people to jump, because apparently such songs will never die. Is it "Jumpman" maybe?)