Find out what went down at the first stop of the RTB tour when Kid Cudi, Earl Sweatshirt, and more took the stage.
Written by Jordan Pedersen
The projects. At one point, you could've seen that profile of grubby institutional high-rises in just about any American city: New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, Memphis. (Los Angeles opted to concentrate its poverty in low-rises.)
But the profile I'm staring up at on this blazing-hot September afternoon isn't in any of these cities. In fact, it's not even a real skyline: it's a stencil, etched onto the banner for the Hip-Hop DX stage at the 2013 Rock the Bells Festival. Behind the banner is a clump of scrubby desert trees, and even further back: the San Bernardino mountains.
At least at first blush, the juxtaposition is jarring: you have to drive past a couple idyllic, duck-filled ponds in order to get to the field where Danny Brown's shouting about MDMA.
The weekend started off with a set from Earl Sweatshirt, the much-hyped and much-loved Odd Future shit-kicker whose album Doris was recently released. Earl mostly downplayed the issues critics have had with the record—monochromatic beats, Earl's monotone rapping style—in favor of an enthusiastic set featuring a mix of cuts from the new record with old favorites ("Earl," "Orange Juice").
Pusha T fared better, though his largely chronological set was a good indication of the always-the-bridesmaid problems Terrence Thornton has faced throughout his career. He started out strong, with a few brief snippets of fan favorites from his time with Clipse. Nothing from Hell Hath No Fury, but we did get "Grindin'" and "Popular Demand (Popeyes)." That early momentum sagged as Push cycled through several tracks from his uneven Fear of God series. Things quickly improved, though, with the beginning of the GOOD Music era, including his career-best guest verses on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasyand 2012 summer leviathan "Mercy."
Q made the strongest impression. Schoolboy is a natural performer, with a charismatic, easy-going stage presence that flips seamlessly into the kind of braggadocio necessary to sell an arena crowd.
Bone Thugs-N-Harmony were one of the last acts to take the main stage on Saturday. Their set covered the crew's biggest hits and fan favorites ("Crossroads," "1st of tha Month," "Thuggish Ruggish Bone"), and the group gave a solid performance that gave no indication that Krayzie, Bizzy, Wish, and Flesh-N-Bone have lost any of their nimble, acrobatic chops. The set also highlighted the sameiness of their material sonically and topically—one Bone song tends to fade into the next—but fans of the omnipresent Bone flow got exactly what they were looking for.
Oh yeah, and there was a hologram.
The torch was symbolically passed from the old to the new as Black Hippy took the stage after Bone said their goodbyes. Jay Rock, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q, and Kendrick Lamar opted against a crew set, as I was expecting. (In a disappointing turn, the crew members failed to even perform their guest verses on each others' songs.) Instead, each of the Hippies emerged to perform a couple of their solo highlights—Jay got one, Ab got three, and Schoolboy got around five—to make way for a fuller set by Kendrick. Of the non-Lamars, Q made the strongest impression. Schoolboy is a natural performer, with a charismatic, easy-going stage presence that flips seamlessly into the kind of braggadocio necessary to sell an arena crowd. Lamar's extra-aggro set failed to deliver on the more vulnerable side of his persona, but the crowd, screaming along to hits like "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe" and "Swimming Pools," didn't mind a bit.
Kid Cudi closed out day one with his signature blend of teen angst and tortured electronica. His effects-heavy set certainly played well to his fans, who stayed late to hear their favorites from the Man on the Moon series and the recently released Indicud.
Day two began with a caustic combination of weed smoke and dust clouds gathered as Danny Brown launched into his decidedly aggro set, delivered to an audience of rapt, angry teenagers. Danny certainly spit his lyrics with aplomb, but he made an offhand remark about how tired he was and, to be honest, it showed. He hit his marks, though, firing off solid renditions of "Monopoly," "Molly Ringwald," and A$AP Rocky feature "Kush Coma." The kids, likely accompanied by their friend Molly, didn't seem perturbed.
Speaking of A$AP, the biggest surprise of the festival - at least to me - was the A$AP Mob's triumphant, uber-professional mainstage set. The crew showed massive improvement over when I saw them at the 2012 Pitchfork Music Festival, delivering a high-energy set accompanied by a full band. Mob hits like "Shabba," "Wild for the Night," "Work," and "Long. Live. A$AP" impacted hard, despite Rocky already having lost his voice. An excellent set.
But the award for the most fun set of the weekend has to go to Juicy J, who ran through highlights from Stay Trippy and his recent run of excellent mixtapes. It's a testament to his skill that the crowd didn't depart after hits like "Bandz a Make Her Dance" and "A Zip and a Double Cup."
The most finely polished set of the weekend went to Deltron 3030, for their excellent run-through of highlights from their classic dystopic self-titled album and their upcoming Event 2 record. Del spit gold bars in a white track jacket, and Dan the Automator conducted the eight-piece orchestra, choir, and full horn section with style and swagger.
But the award for the most fun set of the weekend has to go to Juicy J, who ran through highlights from Stay Trippy and his recent run of excellent mixtapes. It's a testament to his skill that the crowd didn't depart after hits like "Bandz a Make Her Dance" and "A Zip and a Double Cup." They stayed through to the end, and were rewarded with thrilling a cappella version of some of Juicy's strongest material.
Unfortunately, the fest ended on somewhat of a sour note with a disappointing finale by the Wu-Tang Clan, who were plagued with technical issues (a frustrated Method Man at one point remarked, "2 more minutes of this, and I'm out, hologram or not"), and bizarre stage banter (RZA once referred to the assembled throng as "Coachella"). Things started out strong with spirited versions of classics from Enter the Wu-Tang, but the momentum had sagged so badly by the middle that even the appearance of the Ol' Dirty Bastard hologram couldn't get the crowd going.
All in all, a disappointing end to a weekend that featured some excellent performances. It's a testament to hip-hop's all-encompassing infiltration into mainstream culture that, in the end, the pastoral mountain landscape didn't clash all that much with the festival's proceedings. Whether it's towers or trees (smoked or planted), hip-hop's at home.