Eminem’s mission — and, perhaps foolishly, he did choose to accept it — was to avoid being the butt of any “Anticlimaxchella” headlines, taking the main stage in the desert Beyoncé’s collective-consciousness-reshaping appearance the night before. He had yet another hurdle Sunday at Coachella: making sure he wasn’t even overshadowed by Cardi B’s massively attended pre-sundown set a few hours prior to his.
Mission accomplished, then, as the presidents say, but not without a little suspense as to whether or how he’d get there. In the end, Eminem did it by making Sunday a Dre day.
It’s a truism that isn’t always true that at Coachella, as a headliner, you’re only as good as your guest stars. The Weeknd proved the exception to the rule Friday by winning the crowd with zero cameos. On Saturday, the moments when Beyoncé brought out Jay-Z, Solange and Kelly & Michelle dominated the headlines, but — you probably had to have been there to believe this — they kind of counted as the most sluggish moments of a world-beating set. It was clear that Eminem needed some celebrity support, in any case, to cap off what in the early going seemed less like a tailored-for-Coachella occasion than a typical tour stop (even though his first real global jaunt in almost four years is just getting underway).
Would Rihanna, just seen cheering on Beyoncé personally, show up for “Love the Way You Lie”? No, that was left to Eminem’s standby, Skylar Grey, who also did the Dido fill-in honors for “Stan.” Would Ed Sheeran pop in for “River”? No, that was left to… Ed Sheeran, lamely, on tape. Bebe Rexha came by to sing the part she co-wrote on “The Monster” (originally sung, too, by Rihanna), but the bordering-on-six-figure crowd seemed not to recognize her. (Rexha will surely get a bigger roar if she shows up at the same spot in two weeks for Stagecoach to sing her current country chart-topper with Florida Georgia Line.) Kehlani’s guest spot on “Nowhere Fast” at least felt contemporary, though it took 50 Cent’s cameo for the crowd to finally afford someone a bigger roar than any of Eminem’s oldies received on his own.
And then came a four-song shot from Dr. Dre, which, these days, feels a little like Bill Gates kindly dropping in to do a few verses, except maybe rarer. Maybe it doesn’t count as a truly magnanimous act when three of the four songs he guested on were his, and two of them have his name in the title (“Still D.R.E.,” “Forgot About Dre”), branding being important even in semi-retirement. But their joining up on 2Pac’s “California Love” was the thing to prompt the collective stool loss by which a Coachella is really measured.
At this point, Eminem nearly fills the role that Paul McCartney, Prince and Roger Waters played back in the day when Coachella flirted with booking classic rockers as headliners. When his hype man, Mr. Porter, asked the crowd how many owned a copy of 1999’s “Slim Shady LP,” and took the inevitable approval as proof that “you’ve been with us the whole way,” you had to chuckle, knowing how much of the mid-20s-median-age crowd learned early Eminem from Dad’s CD collection (and how few have ever owned a copy of… well, anything). Eminem didn’t spend a huge amount of time talking to the crowd; that’s Mr. Porter’s role, in their bad cop/good cop, effusive guy/not-so-effusive guy routine. (And that itself feels a little dated, when so many modern hip-hop artists at Coachella were willing to go it entirely alone, without a wingman exhorting everyone every five minutes to “make some mother—ing noise.”) But things started to get interesting in a time-out that had Mr. Porter reading mean tweets to Eminem, following a video intro by Jimmy Kimmel. One such tweet alleged that nobody had paid attention to Eminem since 2003, to which the star replied, “I can’t be mad about that. He’s got a point.” The self-deprecation was a means to an end, leading to the rapper introducing a classics segment by asking, “Can I take you back to a time when I was actually dope? Can I take you back to a time when I was actually good?”
It remains to be seen whether modesty becomes Eminem — or maturity — but these seemingly candid asides were an encouraging indication that he’s grappling with, not ignoring, his relevance in 2018. So was his current gun violence-themed single “Nowhere Fast,” with Kehlani, who came on stage to repeat the honors. There was also a sense of gnawing social awareness just in the surprisingly smart and affecting video backdrop design. A daytime cityscape setting with a water tower slipped into sunset as the set progressed, only to catch on fire and burn down after dark… before, in the show’s closing minutes, the ruins were rebuilt as a sleekly modernist neighborhood. That cinematic urban decay and rebirth is surely a metaphor for how Eminem hopes to sustain his career. In the meantime, though, he’s definitely not above having his hype man get the crowd to chant “Shady will f—ing kill you.”
It’s to Eminem’s credit that he actually drew, and sustained to the bitter Sunday-at-midnight end, a crowd as big as Cardi B’s, which is no certain thing for any veteran in 2018. The curiosity factor was obviously off the scale for Cardi B, who’d just gotten confirmation of having her first No. 1 album earlier Sunday — a relatively minor milestone for somebody who’d already become one of pop’s biggest stars off a run of singles. It’d only been eight days since she did a pregnancy reveal on “Saturday Night Live.” In a less censorious setting, how compatible would the baby bump be with thrusting and twerking?
The answer is: very. Beyoncé may have postponed her rather more ambitious plans by a year due to buns in the oven, but Cardi B was not about to let a due date preempt this date’s sexual physicality — even if, comically, you could sense guest YG wanting to keep more respectful distance between himself and the twerking than he otherwise might’ve. More demanding moves reflecting her unabashed past were left to a quartet of bikini dancers who acrobatically took to scaffolding as well as (naturally) poles. Rarely if ever has a Coachella performer worked so many guests into a mere half-hour set: Chance the Rapper, 21 Savage, G-Eazy and Kehlani also appeared. The overload served as both social-media buzz insurance and catching-a-breath insurance.
Whether she has the chops outside the studio to sustain a full-length show on her own? Still hard to say, but the young crowd could hardly have been happier to attend the world’s fastest, raunchiest, most star-studded baby shower.
In-between Cardi B and Eminem on the main stage came a study in contrasts. On one end of the scale, you had the pop-EDM duo Odesza, who grappled with the eternal dilemma of how to push an audience’s buttons while, you know, pushing buttons. On the other, you had Portugal. The Man, an actual rock band — they are still kept on at Coachella, rather like buffalo in a drive-through wild animal park — who looked like they were trying to win a bet with the Polyphonic Spree for how many singers and players one act could put on stage.
It would be lovely to report that the crowd’s seeming enthusiasm for Odesza was earned, and that said crowd was not just an easy lay at the end of a long, mood-altering weekend. But it still wasn’t really clear that the act belonged on the main stage and not in their more natural habitat, the Sahara Tent, which was big enough in the past to accommodate a Chainsmokers crowd and ethos. The proceedings were spiced up with accoutrements like a set of synchronized drones — not to be confused with the security drone that hovered over Coachella all three days — and… well, here’s something Coachella had never seen before… horns and a drumline. (Stock in bass drums should go way, way up after Odesza, Beyoncé and David Byrne all made marching percussionists de rigueur this year.)
If you didn’t know better, you might think that Portugal. The Man was acting like an actual man in overcompensating for something with sheer excess — with a string quartet, horn quartet, two male dancers, and eight backup singers joining the core sextet. But that “It takes a village” sense of community wears well in a festival setting, and the tension between mirth and pomp serves them fairly well. But they could do without the funny slogans appearing on screen behind them, which seemed like a precocious high schooler’s kind of funny (“If you’re here for Odesza, you’re a little early”; “Let’s hurry up, we want to see Migos”; a request that all Instagram posts include a lengthy copyright notice from Universal Music — okay, that one was almost amusing).
Portugal’s set began with a mashup of Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” and ended with a short run-through of “Hey Jude.” If these picks were coincidental, maybe they need to go a little more deep-catalog in their choices. If it was an unspoken nod to Waters and McCartney having previously played that stage, though, they get slightly more cleverness points.
You could see a different study in contrasts in back-to-back sets over at the Outdoor Stage, the venue’s second-largest. Acclaimed jazz saxophonist and band leader (and collaborator on Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly”) Kamasi Washington was followed by Miguel, and we probably don’t have to tell you which audience appeared to top out at about 1,500 and which had a crowd that looked more like 15,000… but the former 1,500 thank Coachella’s bookers for trying. Washington — a figure beloved by key hip-hop and rock names, as well as the modern jazz community — brought an ensemble even bigger than Portugal. The Man’s, with a small orchestra accompanying his core crew for much of the set. In introducing “Truth,” a song from his new “Harmony of Difference” EP, Washington said his band would be playing “five different melodies at a time, as a metaphor for how beautiful the world can be if we all come together.”
Miguel also had a message about coming together, getting the Outdoor Stage’s biggest audience of the weekend to sing along at length with “I wanna f— all night.”
Politics were not always found in as much supply at Coachella as sex, but there certainly were pop-up experiences along those lines. On that same Outdoor Stage the day before, the female duo First Aid Kit had sung their new protest song about sexual harassment and assault, “You are the Problem Here,” following it with a message to the men in the audience that they were complicit if they let their friends’ jokes about the subject slide. On Sunday night over in the Mojave Tent’s closing slot, the young New York rock band the Drums, who have a very Smiths-like vibe, put a MAGA-style slogan up on screen behind them: “Make America an Endless Expanse of Old-Growth Forest With No Certain Borders Again.”
Even though one might question the edgelessness of a lot of the festival’s increasingly Top-40-based bookings, there’s little legitimate issue that can be taken with the amount of thought that Goldenvoice puts into every logistical or design element of Coachella. In recent years, the VIP area that fans pay extra for has turned into its own kind of madhouse, so the festival has smartly added a couple of VIP areas on the opposite end of the map — including a takeover of the rose garden area you once could only peer at through a chain-link fence, a welcome addition for folks who still cough up a little more in order to hang out in an area that feels less tense, not more.
They’ve also outdone themselves with some of the massive-scale art pieces, including Edoardo Tresoldi’s “Etherea,” a series of three wire-mesh sculptures that look like blurry ghost palaces from a distance. Another installation, Newsubstance’s “Spectra,” is semi-permanent, or designed to stay in place at the grounds for at least a few years. It’s a seven-story enclosed spiral ramp that shifts focus as day turns to evening; it’s ideal to gaze out from before sunset and even more fun to look up to when it turns into a colorful human ant farm at night.