Don't let the tweets and Instagram snaps fool you: South by Southwest is a notorious shitshow, with long lines and wait times, too-brief performances, too-long performances, and—special for this year!—non-stop mud and rain. There's the concern you won't get in; the concern you'll get in but your friends are stuck outside. Then there are the artist no-shows—Migos at Mass Appeal, Z-Ro at Southern Hospitality, etc.—the conflicting set times, the insane Uber surge pricing—definitely saw a 7.4x, although who knows how high it really goes? You also begin to wonder, when you hear an artist like promising newcomer Kehlani is doing eight (eight!) showcases over the course of just two days—am I catching the right one? The artists often seem as exhausted as the fans. No wonder Vic Mensa decided to knock out just one show this time around, earlier in the week.
But then come—excuse the cliche—the moments that make it all worth it. Fat Trel at Wednesday night's Atlantic Records showcase was steady, but when he closed with the barrelling 2011 underground classic "Respect With the Teck," it was a shock to the system—and a reminder that Trel's early work in D.C. has been underrated as a direct predecessor of the Chiraq movement. A sweating Kevin Gates, clad in his now-trademark all-gray Nike fit, followed with an impassioned performance, which he closed by jumping into the audience. Ty Dolla ended the night with a typically laconic and enjoyable performance that concluded with the unfortunate "Drop That Kitty," the first major whiff of his solo career. The perfect "My Cabana," meanwhile has been excised from the tracklist.
On Thursday, Southern Hospitality's showcase provided an intermittently strong lineup; P-Lo and Kool John tag-teamed, and the latter's charisma begged for a bigger stage. The appeal of Father and Awful Records was elusive: Everything is about diminished gestures, reigning in rap's typical grandiloquence. This is clearly an intentional part of the appeal, but seeing hip-hop sidestep to the indie rock playbook feels like a concession. They were still better than the Sauce Twinz. While the Migos-derived Texas group's been on the receiving end of a fair amount of hype and attention, their performance felt like more of an endurance test.
seeing hip-hop sidestep to the indie rock playbook feels like a concession.
But Houston's BeatKing gave hands-down the night's most electrifying show—and one of the few at South by Southwest that seemed to garner as much enthusiasm from women in the audience as men. Bombastic strip club anthems, the songs filled the narrow venue with beats that demanded dancers move and heads bob. At one point, BeatKing was joined by Gangsta Boo; the two released 2014's Underground Cassette Tape Music together, but this performance was the first time they'd met in real life. BeatKing closed his set with an unreleased record (chorus: "I used to give a fuck, but I stopped") so look out for that one this year.
Although it was supposed to conclude with Z-Ro, he was a no-show, so instead the evening's climactic moment was a tribute to the Jacka, the legendary Oakland rapper who was killed earlier this year. With Jacka's longtime manager PK DJing, flanked by a large crew that included Freeway and Bay Area rapper Cellski, the rapper Husalah of Jacka's group the Mob Figaz took the stage for a touching performance that included several of Jacka's best known records. The fire marshals arrived just as the show was starting, a drunk white girl tried to commandeer the stage, and many in the crowd seemed unfamiliar with the rapper's work. But the show had a heartfelt dimension that willed success in the midst of initial indifference—a fitting tribute to a rapper whose own career pierced similar resistance.
Friday night, Chance the Rapper and the Social Experiment headlined his "Free the People" showcase in the massive Austin Music Hall. Judging from nonexistent lines to the bar, the crowd was very young. The lineup was stacked, including the buzzed-about Post Malone, Save Money's Towkio, and Kehlani, fresh from an appearance the previous night at the Fader Fort. Raury's music seems relatively thin on record, but live it became more evident why he's attracted so much attention: He radiates ambition in every direction. After stage-diving and losing his signature hat ("I need Raury's hat, deadass," his friend called out from the stage after the show), Kevin Gates hit the stage to an enthusiastic response; his bubbling hit "I Don't Get Tired" got some of the strongest feedback of the night, suggesting a hit on the verge.
But it was, of course, Chance and the Social Experiment's show. Acid Rap is now two years old, but it may as well have come out yesterday; the crowd knew every line, as Chance ran through the whole thing, some new material, and even a couple songs from his 2012 debut, #10Day ("Hey Ma," "Brain Cells"). The sound on stage was true to the album; the band is precise and powerful, Nico Segal's trumpet so sweet with reverb you can practically see the lens burn on the VHS. Over the course of the past two years, Chance has refined and magnified his approach on stage as the crowds have only increased: dancing, jumping, sliding effortlessly across, his movements are precise and performative, yet his persona is one of disarming self-awareness, especially in his stage patter. Yet it still all feels a bit protean, still building upon the first few steps he'd worked out as an opener for Mac Miller two years earlier. Yet such a long pause has allowed Acid Rap to feel more singular by the day.
Chance and the Social Experiment took approximately 14 false endings—"They said I could do one more song," he said literally 10 songs before finishing. In the midst of the encores, he brought out K-Camp and SZA, sang the Spinners-via-Tupac on the intro to "Hey Ma," and performed a yet-unreleased track before joking with the audience to "act like it's heavily in rotation, act like this is a song you know and love...very clubby." He wasn't wrong, or at least it felt that way live. The set closed with a performance of "Chainsmoker," which Chance didn't even need to rap; the audience could have recited the entire thing back to him.
David Drake is a writer living in New York. Follow him @somanyshrimp.