The 2016 Soundset Awards

words by Eamon Whalen

photography by Adam DeGross

Story Of The Day: Soundset Returns To The Cities

Soundset returned to Minneapolis for the first time since it was held in the Metrodome parking lot 9 years ago. Much has changed since then. Instead of Little Brother, Aesop Rock and Dilated Peoples headlining, this year Future, The Roots, Common and ASAP Rocky topped the bill. Instead of a few thousand attendees, there were over 30,000 at the State Fair’s midway on Sunday, once again breaking the previous year’s mark that caused them to ditch Canterbury. As much as the audience and myself would’ve preferred grass to heat-conducting asphalt on a sunny day (and more water fountains), the Midway proved to be spacious enough to house the growing festival and even added some fair favorites like a Ferris Wheel, Fair Games and Sweet Martha’s cookies. 

Best Minnesota (N)icebreaker: Noname

Though fans are still awaiting her debut Telephone EP, Noname (FKA Noname Gypsy) is well-known enough from a few solo songs and stellar feature verses on songs by fellow Chicagoans Chance The Rapper and Mick Jenkins to warrant one of the opening sets on the 5th Element Stage. “I’m a very socially awkward person, so all these white people staring at me is weird,” was the first thing she said after rapping through her thoughtful single Dizzy, which has soul-punching lines like “Holding a wedding dress, thinkin’ about the violence in the city, like what if my soulmate’s already been shot?” It was the perfect way to subtly remind the typical Soundset goer (young, white and more often than not blissfully ignorant) of the oddity of celebrating a Black cultural form in such a White state.

Most Heart-Filling-Up-With-Pride Moments: Baby Shel, Finding Novyon, Lexi Alijai, 9th House and DJ Tiiiiiiiiiip

One of the coolest parts about Soundset is that local artists who’ve been grinding and building up their buzz all year (Shel, Novyon, Lexi), or veterans that reinvent themselves for a new project (I Self Devine and Muja Messiah as 9th House), or locally ubiquitous, one-of-a-kind DJ’s (Tiiiiiiiiiip) play to new audiences and rub shoulders with the biggest names in their genre. Myke Shevy, who plays in the 9th House backing band as well as ZULUZULUU, remarked on Facebook that he got to talk custom drum kits with Anderson Paak, pass 9th Wonder a ZULUZULUU tape and get career advice from Danny Brown.  

Most Glo’d Up: Anderson Paak

I interviewed Anderson Paak at the Varsity Theater in November of 2014 for GR’s 4th issue. He was on tour opening for Watsky, and virtually no one in town (or any town besides Los Angeles for that matter) knew who he was. In the time since, the Oxnard, California bred singer, rapper and drummer was featured on Dr. Dre’s Compton, then to signed to Dre’ Interscope Record, and then dropped an incredible album, Malibu, to show the world how to properly capitalize on a legendary co-sign. He was the toast of this year’s South By Southwest, rocked Coachella and the Tonight Show, and has a full fun of festivals this summer. At Soundset, Paak opened with his verse from rapper Jonwayne’s Green Light, that showed his deep (and possibly unexpected by some) ties to L.A’s underground rap scene. 

Backed by his band The Free Nationals, which included producer Lo-Def, the man responsible for much of the production on Paak’s last album Venice, Paak looked every bit the rock star he’s become in the past year. As he went through his versatile catalog, which blends his interpretations of modern soul, trap, boom bap, rock and house into something altogether new and cohesive. He pranced around flailing his limbs, thrusting his pelvis, completing every move short of sliding across the stage on his knees. It’s good to be Anderson Paak right now. 

Favorite New Festival Trend: Non-Performing Rappers From The Midwest Roadtripping To Soundset

As I was pulling into the parking lot I found myself behind a silver Chevy with Michigan vanity plates that read Salaams. When the Chevy made a U-turn after being turned away from VIP parking, I saw that the driver was lauded Michigan underground rapper One Be Lo, also known as OneManArmy from Binary Star. Later in the day I spotted Saba walking amongst the crowd, the west Chicago rapper that was just featured on Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book (and who is featured in GR’s third issue). He told me he and some friends had left Chicago at 6 in the morning to come see their longtime friend Noname perform. It goes to show the level that Soundset -- now the biggest and one of the only Hip Hop festivals left -- is at. Other rappers will make a roadtrip for it. 

Best Dressed: Mick Jenkins

The 25-year-old Chicago rapper has made his name on his commitment to unapologetically telling his truth, in addition to having impeccable style (his instagram looks more like a menswear lookbook). He merged these two together Sunday, taking the stage in one of Chicago streetwear designer Joe Freshgood’s minimalist white t-shirts that is adorned with small American flag and capital letters over the heart reading Fuck Donald. During his song The Waters, the title track from his 2014 breakout mixtape, he slapped the insignia on his shirt for emphasis as he rapped “fuck with a Black young man, I am everything that it denotes.” Later in the set, in the middle of a song his longtime DJ Greenslime cut the record and dropped N.W.A’s Fuck Tha Police. Though he stopped short of playing a song from it, Mick made it clear that his debut album The Healing Component, will be released this August. 

King Turn Up: Danny Brown

Danny made it clear on his last album, 2013’s Old, that he was ushering in a new era of Danny Brown, one that was less of a rugged recollection of his drug dealing days in Detroit and more of an ode to his pill popping, powder sniffing, private-part licking present. He started with Dope Song, that lays out said transition explicitly, it’s his last “dope” song but not his last dope song, if you know what I mean. He continued through a murderer’s row of anthems celebrating inebriation and self-love like Smokin’ n Drinkin, Pills n Cocaine, Handstand and Lie4, in all his gap-tooth, tongue wagging glory. All hail Daniel. 

Smoothest Operator: Goldlink

Washington D.C area rapper Goldlink has built his name on bringing together uptempo house-infected dancefloor beats of Louie Lastic and Kaytranada with crisp, fly-guy rapping seamlessly. It’s a combination that he and his DJ Kidd Marvel call “Future Bounce,” a self defined genre nestled in with Soulection’s “sound of tomorrow.” At the 5th Element stage, Goldlink was an effortless performer, never missing a bar and bouncing around the stage with grace, even as he air-guitared and head-banged to Nirvana’s Smells Like A Teen Spirit.

Best Performance By An Oscar Winner: Common

In the past few years Common has the struck the rare, almost inconceivable balance between going Hollywood on us and still making music with integrity. In 2014 he won an Oscar for his song Glory, featured in the same film he played Civil Rights Leader James Bevel. In the same year he released the album Nobody’s Smiling, a relevant, measured take on his hometown of Chicago’s violence and the misperceptions of it, and brought along unexpected collaborations with young artists from Chicago (G-Herbo, Dreezy). 

Often, 44-year-old rappers are complacent to go through the hits, get their check and hit the road. But on the mainstage Common was surprisingly engaged, and rapped like he wanted to make new fans, a realistic proposition considering the average age of the audience. To his words, after 25 years since his debut album, he’s still “hungry,” which he explained to the crowd before he played The Food, a Kanye West produced song enhanced by his live keys player that was the highlight of the set.

Lifetime Achievement Award: The Roots

The Roots went through the motions. But The Roots going through the motions is incredible, because they’re The Roots and they’re legends and this is probably between the three thousandth and hundred thousandth show they’ve played. Black Thought, now with a proper Philly beard, held down the emcee duties with gruff and gusto, at some points channeling James Brown, at other points channeling the 1996 and 2006 versions of himself. Questlove’s beloved afro was as shortly trimmed as I’ve ever seen it, and he mostly sat back with a smile, as the band’s two original members let Sousaphone player Tuba Gooding Jr. and Maschine drum pad virtuoso Jeremy Ellis shine. The latter nearly stole the show, finishing the set with a rousing Prince tribute. 

Most Unexpected Attendee: Hannibal Buress

Most Irrelevant Concerns: Future

Future is perhaps the most influential rapper in the game right now. Since his 2014 album Honest, which wasn’t as well received commercially as his label anticipated (“they tried to make me a pop star and they made a monster,” he raps on Stick Talk), he’s dropped 7 projects to critical acclaim and public adoration. As Sway mentioned in his intro, a literal Future imitator has the number one song in the country right now. He had the one of the most quotable lines on one of the biggest albums of the year, Kanye West’s The Life Of Pablo, and he wasn’t even on it (“if young metro don’t trust you, I’ma shoot you”). As the Atlanta-raised, Dungeon family mentored rapper born Nayvadius Wilburn said onstage Sunday, “we gon run out of time before we run out of hits.”

And it’s true, throughout Wicked, Drippin, Karate Chop, Stick Talk, Move That Dope, I Serve The Bass, Thought It Was A Drough, March Madness and so many others, Future’s signature croak turned into a somehow even more enjoyable growl. His dance moves were simultaneously spastic and silky smooth. Dabs were delivered impeccably with laser precision. Drake has described Future as living in a vortex that puts a spell on those who enter, and indeed there is something amazingly mystical about his presence. 

That’s why it was beyond confusing that Future and his DJ seemed preoccupied on the most tired-out rap concert trope: dividing the crowd into which sections were the most turnt up. Some rappers bring that out once or twice a set, but Future did it between every single song, even during the middle of verses. When thousands of people are screaming your lyrics after being in the sun for six hours, all you have to do is play the next song, but it seemed to consume him a hilariously redundant way. It didn’t detract from the set, but I’ve never seen someone so cool be so corny.