words by Eamon Whalen
photography by Grant Spanier
Story of the Day: The Success of the 5th Element Stage
In the last year Soundset will be held at Canterbury (next years will be at the MN State Fair grounds in St. Paul), the main stage became almost an afterthought to the smaller 5th Element Stage. This had little to do with the roof providing shelter from the rain, and everything to do with the lineup. You know a Rap festival is hitting on all cylinders when the hip-hop-head smorgasbord of Chester Watson, Father, Vince Staples, Vic Mensa, Smif-N-Wessun and Freddie Gibbs (not to mention locals Manny Phesto, Freez, Sean Anonymous and Brother Ali) are playing the festival’s second stage. The size provided an experience that captured the claustrophobic intimacy of a rap club show while eschewing the feeling of distant entertainment that can characterize a major festival. On top of that, the bill of (mostly) up-and-coming artists were out to prove themselves in contrast to sometimes complacent larger acts.
Best NUcomer: Chester Watson
The youngest performer on the Soundset bill was the most earnest. The 18-year-old Chester Watson, accompanied by his Nu Age crewmates Comme and Breeze, was sincerely curious what the crowd thought of him. The Florida by way of St. Louis rapper/producer followed each song with “You guys like that? Yeah? Dope!” Though his laid-back music may be best suited for a dark, smokey club setting, Watson impressed with dextrous lyricism and even a couple, dare I say “turn-up” songs like the unreleased cut The Chosen, from his forthcoming project Winter Mirage. In fact, every song Watson performed was unreleased with the exception of Ogre, a nod to Madlib and the set’s highlight Spliffs. The latter song got a boost from Minnesotan friends Bobby Raps and Watson’s backing DJ Art Vandelay (who for full-disclosure is this writer’s brother).
Most Likely To Gain New Fans: Father
Father took the stage after a set by underground raptivist B. Dolan. It was a transition I guarantee will never ever happen again, but is part of the beauty of the diversity of Soundset. Lets just say the crowd was more excited for the rising DIY star from Atlanta. He breezily walked onstage to chants of his name and immediately launched into his hit (Look At) Wrist, with group after group of teenagers pushing by to the front to cook and elbow-pump. He continued with cuts from his breakout mixtape Young Hot Ebony and more recent album Whose Gonna Get Fucked First, which both sport bass-heavy minimalist production with sly, off the cuff rapping. Father has a genuine gift for sticky, anthemic choruses, in such a way that those who weren’t in the know were probably chanting “that’s what you get for not rolling as a unit,” to themselves for the rest of the day.
The People’s Champ: Vince Staples
“These are songs that are supposed to mean something,” said Vince Staples midway through a packed set that revealed his growing fan base. Few rappers today possess the combination of skill, personality and unapologetic cutting social critique like the twenty-two year old Staples. He also deserved a nod for best dressed, sporting a Long Beach State letter jacket over a RIP ASAP Yams shirt - a nod to the late Harlem tastemaker who was among Staples first supporters.
The North Long Beach native belted lyrics from an impeccable rapper stance, including cuts from overlooked projects like Stolen Youth and Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2, to a mash up of his song Screen Door with Goodie Mob’s Cell Therapy. When Senorita, the single from his upcoming album Summertime ’06 dropped, the crowd went into a frenzy, and as he closed with Blue Suede, his spine-chilling single from 2014’s EP Hell Can Wait, it turned to absolute pandemonium. Roses were tossed to Staples feet in a nod to the chorus, “hope I outlive them red roses,” before a stage dive coordinated perfectly with the song’s towering beat drop, in what was for me, the best moment of the day.
Most Exorbitant/Nostalgic: Ludacris
Initially I had some doubt that Ludacris would connect with the 18 and under demographic that makes up much of the main stage crowd. I mean, I didn’t even know his 2010 album Battle of the Sexes or his 2015 album Ludaversal existed until a few days prior. But it turns out I was wrong, as Luda’s potpourri of hits were well received, and really hammered home that he owned 2000-2005. Backed by a completely unnecessary live band with a saxophone that didn’t seem to be making a sound, the set was also a reminder that the man has a skill for turning depravity into crowd-uniting anthems. The sex (What’s Your Fantasy, Pimpin’ All Over The World), the partying (Blueberry Yum Yum, Stand Up), the violence (Move Bitch, Get Back, Act a Fool) were equally successful. The one chance for a sentimental moment in 2001 song Growing Pains turned into bummer due to a dud mic that quieted Lil ‘Fate’s great guest verse.
Most Tired-Out Crowd Participation Strategy: “Fuck That Side Over There!”
It makes sense that two of the oldest rappers on the bill, Ludacris and Ice Cube, were the ones that employed this too often-used trope. Yet on second thought, I suppose that it’s fun at your first rap show, which for many this probably was.
Most High-Maintenance: Vic Mensa
The newest signee of Roc Nation made his Jay-Z allegiance known, entering the stage to the tune of Hov’s PSA. The Hyde Park, Chicago emcee was backed by a two man band that juggled playing bass, guitar, keys and beat an oversized drum pad between the eight or so songs. The result was a thunderous low end and drums that felt like they were going to burst the speakers on his recent Kanye assisted single U Mad, and even on the otherwise lightweight songs like Holy Holy and Cocoa Butter Kisses. Vic proved to be a more than capable performer as well, though not playing last summer’s house hip hop fusion hit “Down on my Luck,” seemed like an audience troll.
Funniest Coincidence: Vic Mensa, Big Sean and Best Friendship
Within twenty minutes of each other, on separate stages, Big Sean and Vic Mensa both said to the crowd: "make some noise if you're here with your best friend!!" It was truly bizarre.
Most Ambitious Yet Unsuccessful Promotional Idea: Giving Out Frisbees At A Musical Festival
I don’t know what company the yellow frisbees came from, but handing out a bunch of flying discs to drunk teens is not exactly an intelligent move.
Best mid-set monologue: Slug affirming Black Lives Matter
Slug stopped the Atmosphere set before his Eyedea memorial song to give a brief heartfelt speech on what the late local legend had taught him. Eyedea’s lesson via Slug was that we’re all connected through “our pain,” whether that be from losing a loved one to drugs or, when “an asshole cop shoots them when they’re unarmed.” Slug continued, “Black Lives Matter.” In the larger context of the festival, in which a “diverse for Minnesota” crowd (read: still pretty white) comes together to celebrate a historically-Black art form, that was birthed out of the same marginalization and violence that continues to this day, that was an all-too-important affirmation by the man who is looked at as Soundset’s boss.
Smallest Quantity of Fucks Given: Freddie Gibbs and Madlib
If you were previously unfamiliar with them you might think Freddie Gibbs and Madlib’s group was called “Fuck Police,” as Gibbs led the chant after every single song. In his first show after the birth of his first child, Freddie seemed reenergized, putting on a clinic of on the meter, technically precise rapping. Anyone questioning the chemistry between the Oxnard, CA reclusive crate digging legend Madlib and the gangster from Gary, Indiana were answered when they were missing one song’s instrumental. Madlib cut up a record and Freddie rapped, in a display of an “I’m the rapper, he’s the DJ” interplay that would make any purist nod in approval.
Lifetime Achievement Award: Ice Cube
There’d be no Freddie Gibbs and no Vince Staples and maybe even no Atmosphere or Brother Ali without O’Shea Jackson, one of the fathers of gut-checking gangster rap realism. Though he’s now a pacified fictional major motion picture dad, he channeled his former identity onstage sunday. In full South Central regalia, short-sleeved black button up, black fitted and black bandana, Cube went through oldies Check Yourself to Straight Outta Compton to Today Was A Good Day in a performance that was somewhere between passionate and mailed in. Oh well, he earned it, and brought WC along. We’re all winners.
Fail of the Day: Wearing Shorts
Speaking of that rain, there was a light-to-medium drizzle that barely let up from arrival to exit. Though I had a raincoat, lets just say halfway through the day I was berating myself like Vince Staples would Chris Paul.
Best In-Festival Networking: Bobby Raps
Enough said. See you next year.