PHILADELPHIA — Made in America, Jay-Z’s annual Labor Day weekend festival in Philadelphia, faced down many threats over the summer. First among them was the city itself – or at least the office of its mayor Jim Kenney, which threatened to move Hova’s hip-hop-driven fest from its existing high-rent location on Benjamin Franklin Parkway due to noise and trash complaints. Jay-Z grumbled, the Mayor crumbled, MIA extended its lease, and after a testy few days, the controversy evaporated into the summer heat — which was the second concern: the humidity-drenched, 100+ degree temps that plagued Philly all summer. However, on Saturday, day one of MIA 2018, grey skies opened without rain, and cooler winds prevailed.
Add in lost sponsorships (goodbye Budweiser, hello McDonald’s and Abercrombie & Fitch), a bill big on up-and-coming talent (Jessie Reyez, Sabrina Claudio, Saba) but lower on big-name headliners (at least until Kendrick Lamar was added to top-billed Post Malone and Nicki Minaj), and a near no-show from Tekashi 6ix9ine (which was quelled when the rainbow-haired rapper hit the stage late, draped in a Mexican flag), and you had an MIA that was big on drama but ultimately emerged with a confident swagger.
Which Queen Did You Mean?: Janelle Monáe (Saturday) Vs. Nicki Minaj (Sunday)
Anyone who thought second night headliner Nicki Minaj would win MIA’s crown title by virtue of her new album, “Queen,” wasn’t counting on Ms. Monáe. In a return engagement to MIA (she played its 2012 debut) the singer-actress brought diversity and versatility to the stage. Along with her usual theatrical flair (e.g. an entrance with a throne, the vagina pants from the “Pynk” video, Cab Calloway-like dancing), she brought a sound that ranged from soulful, Supremes-like grandeur to dirty funk, and referenced her recent coming out to her LGBTQ-heavy audience: “You found out about how I live…. Happy Pride forever!” she shouted before the brittle soul ballad, “PrimeTime.” From “Crazy, Classic, Life,” and its declaration of intent (“I am not an American nightmare, I am the American dream”), to the frenetic finale of “Make Me Feel” (with a snippet of James Brown’s “I Got the Feeling”) and “Tightrope,” Monáe proved to be an unstoppable force, and a welcome change of pace. “Life is all about balance, Philly,” she shouted before exiting the stage.
No matter how big and dynamic a showcase you might have prepared, being the last act at a festival with two 10-hour-plus days can’t be ideal, especially when you’re running 20 minutes late. But that was Nicki Minaj, the first female rapper to ever headline MIA, during what is now her sole North American appearance in 2018 (since she postponed that leg of her “Queen” tour until next year). But clad in a short, clingy dress with her waist-length hair dyed sunburst orange, Minaj made a visual impression beyond any smoke or lights when entering the stage. She even weathered a wardrobe malfunction smoothly during the aptly-titled “Majesty,” as she powered through an otherwise sturdy set of choreographed moves and swivels.
“Sturdy” is actually a good word for Minaj’s set: a dance-heavy showcase that was solid in its staging but uneven in its pacing. Songs like “Hard White,” “Good Form” and “Barbie Dreams” were high points, as were last-minute appearances by Tekashi 6ix9ine on “Fefe” and Philly rapper Lil Uzi Vert, who performed “The Way Life Goes” with Minaj as a sensuous Gaye-Ross duet (along with his own creepy hit “XO Tour Llif3”). Still, it’s early days, and Minaj should be in top form when she hits the U.S. next year after the European leg of the tour.
The True Queen
From sparkly plastic decals of a ‘70s-era Franklin on freshly ironed t-shirts spied during Monáe’s set, to ‘60s beehive signs to badges with Aretha in a pink Cadillac, the late Queen of Soul was lionized in multiple items of memorabilia, although too rarely in the sounds of old-school R&B, at MIA.
The Return of Hometown Hero Meek Mill
In his first hometown performance since he spent five months in state prison on a parole violation, Meek Mill received a hero’s welcome from the “Milladelphia,” as he yelled from the Rocky Stage, audience for his “welcome back party.” He roared through hits like “Ima Boss,” and spoke of “being from the other side of Philadelphia — the dirty part,” but also spoke of the need for prison reform and to fight for those “who have a family member in jail for dumb shit.” During the set he was joined by female rapper Tierra Whack and singer PnB Rock.
Other notable local acts performing on Saturday included West Philadelphia rapper Armani White, whose jazzy band brought hard-bopping R&B hop on tracks like “Public School,” while vocalist Tiffany Majette’s Orion Sun lent a bumping groove to a soul-folk mix.
Post Malone Starts Out Strong but Stumbles, Tekashi 6ix9ine Perplexes
Two of the main acts on the bill, Tekashi 6ix9ine and Post Malone, brought controversy with them. Tekashi came to MIA with a bad rep: he pleaded guilty to a 2015 charge for using an underaged girl in a sexual context in a music video, and a 2018 arrest for allegedly choking a 16-year-old fan. That rep was not helped by the fact that he missed his set time. But Fat Joe and his hype man Big Lou filled the gap with aplomb, bringing the kind of classic hip-hop that Jay-Z loves to the event, with an old-school rhyme structure, halting rhythms, gentlemanly charm, a fatherly outlook (he stopped his set to make sure a fainting woman in the crowd got helped by security), and a serene sense of soul to past hits like “Lean Back” as well as new material like his just-released single, “Attention.”
When 6ix9ine finally took the stage, he lurched into his wildest breakout smashes “Gummo” and “Keke,” garbled a tribute to the late rapper XXX Tentacion, and then slowed his set to say something truly strange after yelling for “American rappers to suck my dick.”
“This is so special to me, the first festival I ever got invited to play,” he said quietly. “I don’t know who it is that runs Made in America, but thanks to them.”
Post Malone’s “Beerbongs & Bentleys” album may have been the first in Spotify history to generate 400-million+ streams in the U.S. alone in a single week, but that does not guarantee a dramatic live performance. Starting with an ambient swell expected more from a Radiohead soundcheck than one of the country’s most popular rappers, Malone started off strong with the mid-tempo “Better Day,” the Philly soul-inspired “No Option” and the dreamily atmospheric “Déjà Vu.” But the set became bogged down in listless and samey tracks, with Malone needlessly dropping f-bombs. However, he scored points for doing a wily “White Iverson” in that former Philly basketball great’s hometown.
Fresh From Eminem’s “Kamikaze”: Jessie Reyez
Fast-rising singer-rapper Jessie Reyez rocked the stage on Saturday with dramatic songs like the sultry “Apple Juice” and jazzy “Body Count,” doubling down on the buzz she’s gotten for being a featured artist on the hottest tracks from Eminem’s just-released surprise album, “Kamikaze.” As she does on that album, Reyez held her own up against hip-hop royalty on the MIA stage.
Miguel and Pusha T: Okay and Meh
Los Angeles-bred singer Miguel always brings a multi-genre flavor to his sets, and “Green Light” and “How Many Drinks?” were big on hip-swiveling R&B. Yet, while entertaining at MIA, we’ve seen him better. And while Pusha T has delivered one of the boldest albums of 2018 with the Kanye West-produced “Daytona,” he brought little of the guts and glory from that album to the MIA stage.
The Quiet Storm(ers): Sabrina Claudio and Saba
While nearly everyone else at MIA pounded and preened, Miami vocalist Sabrina Claudio and Chicago rapper Saba did their very best in the name of understatement. While the former did so with a brand of R&B reliant on her hometown’s smooth and salty Latino vibe, the latter — a buddy of Chance the Rapper — was cool and jazzy in a Chet Baker-meets-Q Tip fashion.
Bringing the Noise: Jpegmafia
The Maryland rapper renowned for the noise-hop of “I Cannot F—ing Wait Until Morrissey Dies” hit the skate park stage Sunday put his small crowd into a Death Grips-like hold. To the sample-driven soundscape of glitchy static, operatic vocals and drip-drop percussion came screams worthy of an Alan Vega album on songs such as “Thug Tears.” Jpegmafia was a true highlight of the fest, even if only 25 people witnessed it.
Bringing the Pop: Zedd
Zedd brought an incongruous Top 40 flavor to the event, but did manage to cram his dream-house “Beautiful Now” collaboration with Selena Gomez and John Bellion into a murky, floating DJ set that included remixes of Childish Gambino’s “This is America,” Dua Lipa’s “One Kiss” and Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow.”
Saving the Day: Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar seemingly rises to every challenge thrown his way, and his late-announced set at MIA was no exception. As always, he performed with dignity, vigor, intensity and gentle nobility in a supremely tight 58-minute set that spanned multiple eras of his career, ranging from “DNA” and the set-closer “Humble” to “Alright” and early hits like “M.A.A.D. City” and “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe.” One of hip-hop’s all-time greats, Lamar made it all look and sound easy.