Slug made an off-the-cuff remark just before “Trying to Find a Balance”: This would be the final Soundset.
This was probably just the Atmosphere MC's usual between-song bullshitting. But on the off chance that this truly turns out to be the final go for the Rhymesayers' annual hip-hop festival, the tenth anniversary of Soundset would be just the right note on which to end. The fest's grand ambitions and inevitable strains were both on full display at the State Fairgrounds on Sunday. Soundset's biggest crowd yet experienced both what the crew aimed to achieve and every challenge that couldn’t be controlled. Here are five takeaways from the day-long event.
Soundset outgrows its humble beginnings
I had all these great “Lauryn Hill was late” jokes planned, but the former Fugee took the stage on time. Many other acts went on late, though, or just didn’t show up, period. Some changes were anticipated: Kevin Gates is in prison and Mac Miller was off consoling his girlfriend, Ariana Grande. But Pusha T and Ty Dolla $ign, citing flight delays, bumped back their sets without notice, and Lil Uzi Vert, a total no-show, has yet to explain why. Schedule changes weren't well-communicated, and anyone who wanted to dip between stages throughout the day would’ve found it hard to see everyone they wanted. Still, the festival has never offered a wider range of artists, and the acts that performed were bigger and ultimately better than at previous Soundsets. Any event of this magnitude is bound to have some hiccups.
The generational divide
“I’d like to apologize that I’m not the type of rapper who raps over his own vocals,” Slug quipped during his set. Just before Atmosphere took the main stage, Playboi Carti performed on the Fifth Element stage, and the A$AP affiliate indeed rapped maybe a fourth of his total lyrics -- and it was great. The younger audience was completely invested, moshing to “Woke Up Like This” and soaking in the newness of an artist born the same year Atmosphere formed. Brother Ali engaged in some gentle ribbing during a freestyle, asking people to experience the show through their eyes and not through their phones; later in the evening, Travis Scott insisted everyone pull out their phones and use the flashlight in place of lighters. There was a time when young and hungry underground rappers defined themselves in opposition to the supposed mainstream, but here every generation of hip-hop and every style was represented simultaneously at Soundset. You could be an old head who hates all that new garbage or a young fan who thinks everything that came before is fucking boring, and either way you could have a good time.
Big and small stages
Headliner Travis Scott was the obvious choice for closing act. Pyrotechnics, frenetic stage antics, and an animatronic bird with laser eyes and entrails dangling from its beak all made for a larger than life performance. Scott’s vocals transformed every song, regardless of its mood, into a gigantic, screaming rush of physical power. At times, the mass wave of energy he gave off was overwhelming. Scott, who was recently arrested for inciting a riot at a concert and has been known to encourage fans to break through security barriers, shouted, “Open this shit up! I better see crying, I better see blood!” before “Butterfly Effect.” But his set was undeniably a memorable and explosive ending.
Earlier, Ty Dolla $ign had one of the best sets of the day, living up to the punk stylings of his “Blasé” video with an intimate, raucous performance suited well to the smaller Fifth Element stage, while ZuluZuluu showed that their impressive new wave of the Minneapolis sound can fill the giant space of the main stage. Smaller-stage sets from Talib Kweli and D.R.A.M. had an energy that a larger space might have diluted, while Oswin Benjamin, playing a few songs on the mainstage while we wondered where Pusha T was, proved his mettle, winning over a large swath of new listeners.
Still, sometimes it was hard to know where you should be. It was a shame that Sa-Roc's Fifth Element Stage set had to compete with her labelmate Brother Ali's mainstage slot, because her firebrand energy and impeccable live spitting was a standout of the day.
Minnesota vs. the world
In addition to the big national acts, Minnesota was well represented, with Atmosphere, P.O.S, Brother Ali, the Stand4rd, Mod Sun, Sophia Eris, ZuluZuluu, Nazeem & Spencer Joles, J. Plaza, DJ Tiiiiiiiiiip, DJ Keezy, Last Word, and Booka B among the local talent. As usual, many of the hometown performances stood out among the day's best, particularly the first timers, still hungry and out to prove they've earned their spot. The Stand4rd in particular felt like they were trying to maintain that middle space between representing for their scene and graduating into their role as nationally recognized artists, playing a hype set that showcased their individual and collective talents.
Legends vs. newcomers
Sway, the onstage host, was good about recognizing legends and providing context for those who might be new to an artist. His shout-outs to a bloody labcoat-wearing Kool Keith, the elusive Dan the Automator, and the turntablist genius DJ QBert following Dr. Octagon’s set were rooted in a deep respect for their collective influence on hip-hop. Other historic artists included hip-hop radio pioneers Stretch and Bobbito, spinning for breakdancers in the Essential Elements tent. (“I’m spinning vinyl, so just know, the record might skip,” Bobbito said as he began.) Pete Rock spun his own set and returned to open for Lauryn Hill.
There’s a clear reverence in the lineup for the legends, and the artists themselves did their best to represent their legacy -- Gucci Mane, T.I., and E-40 each played sets that showcased how their long, storied careers helped define their cities' sound. But there was also space for newer artists like 070 Shake, who said she’d only been making music for a year, and encouraged others to do whatever they wanted to do whenever they wanted to. She pushed the sound of the dark, sing-song wave into bold new territory and brought an energy unlike anything else onstage that day, exemplifying why the festival's determination to make room for burgeoning artists is good for hip-hop as a whole.
Click here to see our photo slideshow of Soundset '17