What will it be like to be in a crowd full of people at a festival again?

It’s a question that’s been on many of our minds since the pandemic began. 

Will this be our generation’s Summer of Love? We’ll all witness a glorious reunion of the masses after isolation? Throughout a hellacious past year and a half, the prospects of concerts returning has been a light at the end of the tunnel for many. And this summer, live shows have finally come back in phases. 

In early July, Tyler, the Creator invited a few thousand fans to pop-up shows at intimate venues in LA, Dallas, and New York. I went to the one in Brooklyn, and the small-scale performance made for a nice stepping stone back to full-blown public concerts. Then this past weekend in Atlanta, Kanye West put on one of the first stadium rap shows since early 2020. Well, it wasn’t really a show—he played a version of his new album and walked around in a red outfit that he’s probably still wearing. (You can read the rest of my thoughts on that experience here.)

It wasn’t until midnight on Saturday, though, that I felt the full return of live music firsthand. That’s when tens of thousands of people pushed their way to the front of the stage, and I settled into a pocket that was so tightly packed together no one could move. Three guys in their early 20s unironically referred to each other as “ragers” to my left, a couple made out behind me, and an empty can of Cacti crunched under the feet of the guy in front of me. I guess that means we’re really back.

I was in Miami for the first major music festival in the United States since the beginning of the pandemic—and it wasn’t a quiet, gradual return. On three consecutive nights, 75,000 people crammed themselves into Hard Rock Stadium for Rolling Loud Miami 2021. Some attendees wore masks, but there were probably just as many being worn onstage by artists (shout out Kanye’s influence) as there were in the crowd.

So, now that a festival has finally returned, was it the euphoric release of pent-up energy that we all hoped it would be? In a way, yes. I’d been to Rolling Loud before, but I’d never felt as much enthusiasm as there was on Day 1. After multiple delays and reschedules, this day had literally been marked on people’s calendars for years, and when the gates finally opened, there was a sense of urgency to make up for lost time. Crowds at Rolling Loud already had a reputation for their, um, enthusiasm, and the hysteria was turned up even higher this year.

I’ll admit that at first, it’s a trippy feeling to stand in a massive crowd after rewiring your brain to avoid contact for so long. It’s a fleeting sensation, though. After an initial shock, it starts to feel normal again, and most of your attention gets redirected to the stage. That’s where artists had a chance to show how excited they were to finally perform in front of crowds again. “We’re back outside!” was yelled from every stage all weekend. Or, as Gunna wrote on the front of his shirt, “Big dick is back outside.” In ASAP Rocky’s words, “I missed you ugly motherfuckers, you heard?” 

Spirits were high. Although, while I was standing shoulder to shoulder with thousands of fans in the pit, I couldn’t help but wonder how well my vaccine was working on the new variants that are surging in Florida right now. At a certain point, you feel an urge to move on with life once you’re fully vaccinated, but at an event like this, there is a lingering feeling of uneasiness. Attending the first major music festival in the United States since last March, we were all participating in an experiment of sorts. I’ll definitely be getting tested.

Musically, this was a weekend of firsts. It was the first time many of 2020’s biggest songs were played in a proper setting (Lil Baby and 42 Dugg finally performing “We Paid” for a festival crowd was a highlight). It was Bobby Shmurda’s first big performance since returning home. And it was the first major show for many up-and-comers who blew up over the past year and a half. 

Of course, a return to “normal” means facing the realities of humanity again. When you squeeze 75,000 people into the same place at the same time, some dumb shit is going to happen, no matter how excited everyone is to be there. People are going to overextend themselves (the medical tents were busy). People are going to get claustrophobic and panic in the moshpits after not experiencing anything like that for nearly two years. People are going to get in fights. And people are definitely going to be opportunistic.

On Sunday, I tried walking from the mainstage to the Audiomack Stage for SAINt JHN’s performance. The way the festival grounds are set up, though, there’s a choke point where everyone has to file through a narrow entranceway. So when sets let out and everyone tries moving at once, people get squeezed together and bodies pile on top of each other. That’s exactly what happened to me on my way to SAINt JHN, and by the time I finally forced my way through to the other side, I realized someone had stolen my phone out of my pocket.

I’m not the only person this happened to. The Rolling Loud Reddit page is full of stories from people who were pickpocketed this weekend, and hundreds showed up at the Lost and Found booth looking for phones that never turned up. I guess that’s another reality of everything finally returning to “normal.” 

The lows of humanity are balanced out by the highs, though. An hour after reporting my phone stolen, I made my way back to the main stage for Lil Uzi Vert’s performance and met a group of superfans who welcomed me into their circle during “Do What I Want.” There’s no way to describe this interaction without it sounding wildly cheesy, but we all sang along to Uzi’s songs together, and it was the exact kind of moment that 75,000 people came here looking for in the first place. This is what we’ve all been missing since last March.

While we’re on the topic of Uzi’s performance, I’ve got to give him credit for having the best set I saw all weekend. Travis’ Saturday night headlining performance was the crown jewel of the festival, but there’s something about Uzi that makes him an even more enjoyable performer at times. Most artists at Rolling Loud can hype up a crowd, but not many can mix singalongs with mosh pit anthems like Uzi can. This was the first time he’s been able to play Eternal Atake songs for a large crowd, and it was clear he’s hit a new level since taking the stage last. Don’t be surprised to see him in a headlining spot next time.

Someone else who confirmed he should be a headliner is Lil Baby. It’s one thing to see his impact online after the incredible run he’s been on for the past couple of years, but catching a live set shows just how far he’s come. Everyone knew every word, and he drew one of the biggest crowds of the whole festival.

The actual headliners did their thing, too, though. Even though his mic was cut early due to a Miami noise curfew, ASAP Rocky put on an entertaining show; Post Malone put a nice celebratory cap on the weekend; and, of course, any time Travis Scott plays Rolling Loud, he’ll have the most anticipated set of the festival (he delivered on the hype).

There were also plenty of newsworthy moments, for better or worse. On the more positive end of the spectrum, artists like Travis Scott, Lil Uzi Vert, and Young Thug debuted new songs. On the other side of things, DaBaby received backlash for homophobic comments and for bringing out Tory Lanez as a guest right after Megan had left the stage.

One narrative that I’d like to share some perspective on is all the talk about crowds being unenthusiastic this weekend. Just because an audience sounds quiet on a livestream doesn’t mean that’s the reality on the ground. Audiences aren’t always mic’d, and aerial cameras don’t always pick up the full motion of fans. There was a lot of talk on Twitter about how no one was reacting positively to Coi Leray’s set, and it’s true that she didn’t receive as warm of a welcome as some other artists, but as you can see in this video we filmed in the photo pit, the crowd was more energetic in person than it appeared on the stream. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.

Much of the online buzz was reserved for headlining performers, but I was impressed with the quality of the sets earlier in the evening, too. Artists like Ski Mask the Slump God, Don Toliver, Megan Thee Stallion, Sheck Wes, and Kodak Black each made it worthwhile to show up a little early. Emerging artists like SoFaygo, Cochise, $not, and SSGKobe represented very well for the new wave that’s coming up right now, too. Many of them performed their very first festival sets this year, and you shouldn’t be surprised to see their names a little higher on the lineup next year. 

This weekend was just as much a celebration for artists as it was for fans. Backstage at Rolling Loud is always a one-of-a-kind place, with artists from all corners of rap meeting for the first time, and this year it was one big reunion. I walked around with Ski Mask the Slump God for about an hour and watched him repeatedly get mobbed by old friends from Florida before running into fellow performers like Flo Milli and Bobby Shmurda. Zoom calls and IG Live sessions served their purpose for a while, but there’s really no comparison to seeing these things happen face to face. It felt good to be back.

On Monday, after three days at Hard Rock Stadium, I returned to Miami International Airport. My ID didn’t survive the trip, so I had to be escorted by a TSA agent at the Miami airport for an extra security check. Walking over to the metal detectors, he told me he had been dealing with kids all weekend who lost their wallets at Rolling Loud. And at that moment, he realized this was the first time he had encountered a post-festival crowd of travelers in a year and a half.

“I guess this means we’re finally getting back to normal,” he said with a laugh. 

Then he readjusted his hospital-grade mask and I walked to my gate.