While waiting at the metal detector to enter Day 3 of Rolling Loud NYC, I overheard an attendee on my right complaining about an artist who was performing on a stage. He was telling his friend he didn’t know how anyone could listen to the artist’s style of rap and called it “just noise.”
Then I looked to my left and saw another attendee excitedly nodding his head to the same artist’s set, looking ready to do a full sprint over to the stage once they got in. The moment encapsulated the beauty of festivals like Rolling Loud that have something for every hip-hop head.
This was (somehow) my first major festival experience, so I was excited about the prospect of having access to young rappers inspired by the “SoundCloud era,” street favorites like Lil Durk and Moneybagg Yo, and commercial behemoths like J. Cole and Travis Scott. Whether you like spitters, genre-bending crooners, or want to mosh or embrace your inner Bobby Shmurda to some drill, there’s an artist who supplied it on the lineup. Until Elon Musk involuntarily envelops society into a physical cloud universe, Rolling Loud will be the closest experience to actually living inside your streaming app. But unfortunately, the weekend wasn’t just about the music.
Alongside all the buzzing out of town artists were local heroes like 50 Cent, Bobby Shmurda, and Fetty Wap. But their appearances were marred by decidedly unfestive elements: Fetty was arrested by federal agents on drug charges, 50 brought out DaBaby during his set (after homophobic comments at Rolling Loud Miami) and a notable amount of NYPD officers lurked around Bobby Shmurda’s performance. All three moments spoke to larger trends of rap’s criminalization and the conflictedness marginalized groups must feel at rap shows.
Fetty’s Thursday arrest was yet another instance of an artist running into trouble with the police at or around a Rolling Loud event. EST Gee and Fredo Bang were arrested earlier this year in Miami and Kodak Black was arrested in 2019. At the inaugural Rolling Loud NYC, the NYPD removed 5 New York rappers from the bill because they surmised their presence would “would lead to more violence.” Though Rolling Loud representatives tell Complex that they received no such warnings this time around, it’s clear that federal agencies and police departments are intentionally looking to festivals as opportunities to target artists.
It’s easy to make loose connections and side-eye the actual festival, but there’s no way to know where they stand without a candid talk with organizers. They’re likely stuck between a rock and a hard place, having to be cooperative with municipalities in order to hold the show, but also not wanting artists to be harassed and surveilled. For now, this feels like an issue that’s more about the power of the NYPD and the general criminalization of rap than anything that can be actually linked to Rolling Loud organizers. It sucks that their name is attached to this ugly trend, though.
There was social media speculation that police were behind the other missed sets, such as headliners Lil Durk and Chief Keef, but Rolling Loud representatives tell Complex that “a small number of artists weren’t able to perform due to delayed flights or not arriving to the venue with sufficient time to get them on stage.” The NYPD imposed a strict 10:00 p.m. curfew, which kept organizers on a firm schedule. They said they “did the utmost to allow all artists to perform within their allotted set times” and “held the set times open in the hopes that artists running late could perform at least part of their set,” but in some cases they weren’t able to line it up and “the festival wasn’t able to alert fans that the artist’s set wouldn’t happen.”
Beyond all the drama were plenty of enjoyable sets. Headliners Travis Scott and J. Cole each had ornate set designs and gave nearly an hour of their hits to fans who were reciting every word. This year’s Rolling Loud festival in New York was yet another affirmation of rap being in a great place musically. Anywhere where quaking 808s and drumless soul loops can ring off in one place is a good place to be. And anyone still talking about what rap is lacking would be served to look at the bill of 140+ booked acts and do some digging on their favorite DSP.
There are things to be said about performances and elements of the festival that could have been better. But at the end of the day, we were all there for the music, so the artists who performed for their fans deserve to be the prevailing story. People just want to let their hair down and have fun where they can, and thousands of fans got the chance to do that for three days. If they’re anything like us, they’re resting their legs while taking in the reverie of the weekend’s highs, which we discuss in more detail below. Along with fellow Complex Music staff writer Jessica McKinney, I broke down my favorite (and least favorite) parts of Rolling Loud New York 2021. —Andre Gee