Sitting alone at a bus stop on North and Ashland in West Chicago last Friday I had the usual unease of any out-of-town traveler, that I may not be heading in the right direction. But soon, one by one my fellow travelers began arriving. Some with cuffed jorts, some with Tom slippers, others with nose piercings, mostly all with hats and glasses. One with a sew-on patch on their backpack that read “Good Morning New York City, Let’s Get This Money.” I let the comfort wash over me, I was headed in the right direction.
Now nearing a decade of operation, the Pitchfork Music Festival is a tangible symbol of the once online publications growth from an indie rock haven to an all-genre-encompassing tastemaker, with a particular interest in what has been called for years as this generation’s rock music - hip hop. While some traditional guitar bands impressed (Beck, St. Vincent) and others fell flat (Neutral Milk Hotel), R&B singers were included for great reason (Sza, Kelela, FKA Twigs) but the weekend was ruled by rappers and capped off by the self-proclaimed “King,” Sunday’s headliner Kendrick Lamar.
SZA (pictured above)
Sza wore an interesting gender-bending outfit of a tall dress tank top and baggy shorts, clarifying soon after she took the stage in a sweet Midwestern (originally from St. Louis) valley-girl voice that she only slipped on the shorts because she was worried the audience “might see my vag.”
“Relaxation is my personal preference,” she said after performing a few sleepy but uplifting songs from her T.D.E debut, Z.
Holding down Pitchfork’s early Saturday grizzled grown-man rap slot occupied by MC Tree at last year’s festival was Ka, a 41 year old rapper/producer with bare-bones approach to classic New York hip hop and intricately written reflections on his former life in the streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn.
“I’ve never performed for this many people,” the reclusive NYC fireman-by day said of a crowd of about 150 people facing him on the red stage, “I’m in the cave all the time.” For as solitary of an artist as you may find, Ka was engaging, flipping around a chair and sitting down to face the crowd and calmy rap with impeccable precision. He mentioned it was his first time in Chicago and in a sobering moment likened the city’s current crisis of violent crime to his own growing up during the crack era, especially in the warmer months. “This is my summer song. Yours might be all about beaches and barbecues, but I lost a lot of friends in the summer. I know it goes down here too.”
At a festival that relies on a rigid set schedule to function, Pusha T took the stage about forty minutes late. Good thing he didn’t give a fuck. Dressed in all black with permanent scowl was fixed to his mug, the set was a grandiose showing of braggadocio and cliche rap exorbitance in a weekend mostly full of thinking-mans rap. The former member of Clipse made his name (which he made sure to note is his name) on continually finding creative ways to rap about selling cocaine.You were reminded that he’s rapped some of the best production over the past few years (Runaway, Don’t Like, Move That Dope, Numbers On The Board) and the timing of his punchlines worked wonders on the crowd.
The Maryland raised vocalist Kelela is at the forefront of the intersection between R&B, Pop and the underground electronic dance music of Los Angeles and the U.K. Backed by L.A-based DJ Total Freedom, she had a commanding stage presence and a powerful voice not totally reflected in the coolness of her records.
Danny Brown’s performance indicated as much as anything a desire to shed his dope-dealing past, opening up with the very literal (My last) “Dope Song.” He’s always been more of a product of the Detroit Techno Scene than the dusty finger Slum Village side, and he’s still one of the greatest rappers of his generation but I couldn’t help but think that the festival circuit’s three year obsession with him has had a negative influence. The crowd went nuts for him as he played EDM-leaning songs from his 2014 album “Old” like Break It, Handstand, Kush Coma and Smokin N Drinkin. They crushed on a huge sound system, and his stage presence was magnetic, but I couldn't help but want the sense of humor and songwriting ingenuity underlying his older songs like Lie4 and I Will or even Old's 25 Bucks (which he also included in his set). He doesn’t have to return to the braids, dope fiends and copper pipes that populated his early projects, but he seems to have momentarily sidetracked from his best attribute, his originality
Britain’s FKA Twigs was accompanied by a three-man band surrounding her on drum pads. She flaunted her now-signature elaborately done-up pigtails, and pranced around like the former professional dancer she is to her space-capsule R&B. What her music lacked in a certain accessible groove, it was made up for by the spectacle.
After wearing his rail thin body to the brink for the past year building on the momentum of his debut album Doris, Earl Sweatshirt had called off his Pitchfork performance in July due to exhaustion. But thank god that he decided to come out to Chicago for the weekend last minute, because his set was one of the best rapped of the entire weekend.
It takes a considerable amount of dexterity to deliver verses as dense and internally oriented as Earl’s with clarity, let alone correct emphasis. And though he’s outgrown the shock-value humor of his 16 year old self don’t think he’s lost his sense of humor. His rapport with crowd mixed sarcasm and antagonism with nice kid sincerity. Unsatisfied with one attendee “in a fucking dress shirt and some aviator’s” participation, he nicknamed him “Brett,” and referred to his new friend a few more times throughout the set. Later when the crowd seemed unresponsive after he commented on Chicago’s legacy of “ill butcher shops,” he said “fuck yall for alienating me for knowing your city’s history.”
In the most emotional set of the weekend, DJ Spinn held what felt like a memorial in the form of a performance for his partner in bringing Chicago footwork music to the world DJ Rashad, who passed away this April. There were at least thirty people on stage, including Treated Crew and various members of Spinn and Rashad’s TekLife collective. Mostly all were wearing shirts adorned with Rashad’s face with ten or so dancers jockeying to pay their respects in dance form as the 160 bpm wall-of-sound beats pulsated through the speakers.
Next to me in the crowd, members of the SaveMoney started their own footwork circle right on cue. Onstage DJ Oreo, better known as Chance The Rapper and Vic Mensa’s DJ, took to the mic to express the importance of Chicago’s musical community in relation to the dark reality of growing up there. Nearly in tears, he said “We’re family. This is why we’re still here.”
“From Chicago my daddy and momma came to Compton to raise a king, reign supreme, named Kendrick,” he rapped to a crowd of thousands as he neared the end of his headlining set. He was backed by a live band, a choice possibly influenced by his ill conceived time spent with Imagine Dragons. Damn you Grammy’s. It gave a few of his songs a strange rock tinge, but when you’re the preeminent lyricist of your generation, you can get away with it
As Kendrick performed, rapping effortlessly through songs from his debut good kid, maad city, I thought of the first time I had seen him live in 2011. It was a few months after the release of Section. 80 at The New Parish, a small club in Oakland. It was packed wall to wall and there wasn’t a body in the room that wasn’t transfixed on what was happening onstage, with one arm permanently thrown in the air singing every hook and rapping every word.
Even though there were several thousand more people on unday, I got the same feeling. When an artist reaches a certain level of adoration, and does so with music that’s vulnerable, honest and emotive, the atmosphere their live show produces is electric, and certainly unlike any other. It didn’t matter that festival goers had experienced a weekend filled with rappers, that night he was the only one that mattered.