And in its eighth year, Made in America mellowed out.
The 2019 edition of Jay-Z’s annual Labor Day music festival kicked off with the most relaxed, not over crowded, practically pleasant day on the Ben Franklin Parkway in its history.
After a 2018 that was filled with drama — with the threat of the fest being moved off the Parkway, and freed-from-jail local hero Meek Mill making a triumphant return — the opening day and night of this year’s fest was positively chill in comparison.
Rapper Cardi B headlined, returning to the festival she first played in 2017 as a brassy, bold-faced star who has dispensed with the doubters who dared to suggest that the former stripper and reality show star would never amount to more than a “Bodak Yellow” one-hit wonder.
Hitting the stage at 9:40 p.m., the Bronx-raised spitfire addressed those haters straight away, on “Get Up 10,” the opening track that takes a page out of Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” intro in its rising-in-intensity full-force attack.
Telling her rags-to-riches tale of going “from nothin’ to glory” while dressed in a form-fitting rainbow-colored body suit, she asserted her authentic grit with trademark flair and comic timing, declaring herself to be “a real b—, the only thing fake is the boobs.”
With a team of dancers behind her, the emcee born Belcalis Almánzar was then joined by rapper Pardison Fontaine on “Backin’ It Up,” in which she stated out loud what has become obvious through each stage of her career: “I’m the queen of talking’ s— and backin’ it up.”
Later, after showing off some athletic strip-club moves during “Money Bag,” she paused to tell the crowd that “I’ve always had a special love for Philly — even when I was a stripper.”
Since her rapid rise, Cardi has been in high demand as a featured guest on other rappers’ song and remixes of their hits, and the middle of her set was filled up with performances of her parts of songs by Maroon 5, City Girls, and others. They were exciting enough, briefly. But rather than build tension, the rapper’s DJ would bring each bit to a crashing halt, one after another, abruptly stopping any momentum in its tracks.
The hour long set — which was economical to the point of felling rushed — got its groove back with “I Like It,” her Latin trap hit from last year with J Balvin and Bad Bunny that ingeniously employed a sample from Pete Rodriguez’s 1967 boogaloo hit “I Like It Like That.” And she brought it to a close, of course, with “Bodak Yellow,” the unstoppable 2017 hit in which she announced that “I don’t gotta dance, I make money moves.” She then exited the stage and the video screens showed her doing dance moves in a protected area down among her fans, as fireworks shot off overhead and “Stripper Bow,” a song by Quality Control and her husband Offset’s band Migos played over the sound system.
With sunny skies, low humidity, and smaller crowds than usual, the Parkway site was easier to maneuver than any time in memory, as fans made the move from stage to stage, or pursued sighting celebrities such as Beyoncé (the gold standard) or Sixer Ben Simmons or Jay-Z with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.
That was due in part to Cardi’s drawing power not being Beyoncé-sized, or even a match for the one-two punch of Mill and enormously popular pop rapper Post-Malone last year.
This year’s fest was also smaller, with its fifth locally heavy Skate Stage eliminated so the only Philly talent on tap Saturday was songwriter and gifted singer Pink Sweat$, who played a standout mid-afternoon set under a baking sun. (215 rappers Tierra Whack and Lil Uzi Vert are both scheduled to play on Sunday.)
Other changes: The fest has upgraded from the spinning contraption amusement-park ride that has occupied the center of the site for the last two years with a Ferris wheel, a more picturesque, selfie-compatible choice, that’s become a visual signifier of other festivals like Coachella.
Made in America also again has a Cause Village, staffed with activist workers urging fest goers to get involved in issues like criminal justice reform and reducing gun violence. A poster featuring exiled NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick urged social justice warriors to #TakeAKnee and Kaepernick seemed to glare across the way to the booth of the Shawn Carter Foundation, named after the Made in America owning rapper who has been criticized for his recent remarks that the racial justice movement is “past kneeling.”
Cardi B’s setlist
Juice WRLD attracted a thick crowd to the Rocky Stage, showing his appreciation for Philly fans throughout his set. The Chicago emo rapper delivered songs like “Empty” and “Flaws and Sins” as dusk settled into night.
After performing “Lucid Dreams,” WRLD hinted that the set might be ending, but kept rolling with several songs that felt like a high-energy encore. He performed “No Bystanders,” the Travis Scott song in which he is featured, and the crowd went wild — including forming a giant mosh pit.
He ended his time by giving his fans words of encouragement, telling them to follow their dreams. “You can do whatever the f— you want, period,” he said. “I’m living proof of that s—.”
He may be 760 miles across the country performing in Chicago tonight, but the spirit of Meek Mill was certainly present in Philadelphia even before his mentee, rapper Roddy Ricch took the Tidal stage.
The tightly packed and well-lubricated crowd at the stage near the festival’s entrance erupted as a DJ blasted Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” before Ricch appeared. It was a fitting way to begin the 20-year-old Compton singer and rapper’s second Made in America appearance, after making his debut on the Tidal stage as a surprise unbilled act with Mill last year.
Ricch, who sings about losing friends to gun violence and growing up on the streets of Compton in his soulful anthem, “Die Young,” has been compared to a young Meek Mill, possessing the same hunger for success and overcoming obstacles.
At Made in America, Ricch paid homage to the Dreamchasers rapper, asking the crowd to make some noise for Mill, who was there “when [Ricch] first came into the game.”
Made in America has presented multilingual artists before — like the Dominican American singer Prince Royce, who played the very first MIA in 2012. But the Jay-Z-booked fest has never placed a Spanish-language act as high up on the bill as Rosalia was in her 6:30 time slot Saturday.
As the flamenco pop singer said in her broken English stage patter, she came a long way — “all the way from Barcelona.” Rosalia’s music traveled to the U.S. in advance, however. Her 2018 album, El Mal Querer (“the bad desire”), made significant inroads with discerning pop fans on the strength of its percussive hit “Con Altura,” and she slayed at the MTV Video Music Awards this week.
At MIA, the Catalan singer worked it most impressively, playing to a crowd that was a mix of hard-core fans and neophytes caught up in the momentum of the music, which split the difference between traditional Spanish folk forms (that are themselves a polyglot mix) and modern pop.
For a festival performance during daylight hours, Rosalia’s show was thoroughly produced and imaginatively staged, a slick presentation that was nonetheless most effective because of its earnest, beating heart, particularly in an a cappella interlude that was dazzling without being overly showy. Other than her between-song intros and shout-out to her good friend James Blake (who’s performing Sunday) before “Barefoot in the Park,” many in the crowd might not have understood a word of what Rosalia was saying, but it was impossible to miss her sincerity.
If fans were hoping for a full hour of Freddie Gibbs and Madlib, as promised, those fans were disappointed. The emcee and producer performed their song “Crime Pays” twice and left around 15 minutes early.
But fans could see it coming. Mid-set, Gibbs, the veteran rapper from Gary, Ind., paused to ask Madlib, the L.A.-based producer, if they’d gone through all their songs yet. When Madlib shook his head no, Gibbs added: “‘Cause we done. I got s— to do.” (He walked off but returned briefly, blunt in hand.)
The pluses: The two performed well together: Madlib’s live DJing showed off his careful sample selection and Gibbs killed his raps, not only to the beats but to Madlib’s scratching. The minus: We’ll have to wonder why they didn’t come ready to perform enough material.
Anderson .Paak, the Southern California rapper, singer, and leader of his fabulous band, the Free Nationals, began his set on the Rocky Stage behind the drum kit, working on a twitchy funk vamp that had the starting-to-swell crowd getting into a groove in front of the Art Museum steps.
But if .Paak was paying close attention as he jumped out stage front in his lime-green fishing and pink gym shorts, he might have noticed that the crowd seemed distracted.
What is Made in America for? Listening to music, taking selfies, or hunting for celebrities?
First and foremost, taking selfies, obviously. (Also, smoking weed: The site seemed much more redolent this year.) But along with watching bands and rappers, the added perk is seeing an actual famous person walking on the gated streets of Philadelphia. (And we’re not talking about Gov. Tom Wolf, although he was there hanging with Jay-Z.)
Just before .Paak went on, 6-foot-10 Sixers point guard Ben Simmons was seen maneuvering through the crowd. Easy to spot, because he was so much taller than the gang of 50 or so kids cashing him down with their fingers on the record button.
OK, that was pretty good. But then, as .Paak began his third song, a much bigger one: Beyoncé, surrounded by a phalanx of security, making her way backstage. .Paak might have thought the crowd was being particularly unresponsive to his call-and-response demands, but their attention was elsewhere.
So, back to .Paak. The jack-of-all-trades entertainer has been an inconsistent recording artist since his Malibu breakthrough in 2015. But along with the Free Nationals, and rapper YBN Cordae, who joined them on the Rocky Stage, .Paak has a live act that few in the hip-hop world can match. That was proven out Saturday, whether it came to the band cutting loose in a fashion beyond the more machine-driven acts, or when .Paak, who’s seriously underrated as a singer, displayed his at once feathery and scratchy soul voice, reminiscent of Curtis Mayfield.
Made in America found its groove late Saturday afternoon in the person of Jorja Smith, the black British singer who’s a sophisticated song stylist and who played the Liberty Stage as the sun beating down on the blacktop began to dip.
Wearing a pink party dress with yellow flowers attached to celebrate her last show of the summer, Smith was backed by a skillful band that occupied a sweet spot between R&B and jazz. Pulling from her 2018 debut, Lost & Found, and revisiting her “Get It Together” duet with Drake (who was there only in voice, not body), the 22-year-old carried herself with an easy confidence, navigating varied rhythms and singing with a touch of Billie Holiday in her voice.
Ten minutes before 23-year-old Bazzi took the Rocky Stage on Saturday afternoon, hordes of teens were already in a full-on sprint across the Parkway to catch the man whose music went from Vine to viral.
The feeling was mutual. “Philadelphia! This is one of my favorite cities I’ve ever been in, one of my favorite cities to perform in!” the singer-songwriter born Andrew Bazzi bellowed across Eakins Oval.
In a knit black cap, red bandanna and navy and red-striped button-down shirt, the artist from Dearborn, Mich. skipped across stage as colorfully lit columns danced behind him, performing his newest work from the Soul Searching mixtape as the raucous crowd danced along, throwing empty water bottles into the air and clamoring on the shoulders of neighbors to catch the action.
But it was when Bazzi played his biggest hit, “Mine,” that the crowd broke into a full-on dance party. After it was featured in a Snapchat lens in 2017, the song — and Bazzi’s career — took off. The “Mine” music video has been viewed more than 145.5 million times on YouTube.
Meanwhile on the Tidal Stage, Buddy, the 25-year-old Compton rapper, gave a fun, convincing set, packed with songs from his 2018 album, Harlan & Alondra, and its deluxe edition, which came out earlier this year.
Early on, his performance of “Trouble on Central” had folks in the crowd two-stepping to the midtempo track. Then he amped up the energy.
The emcee encouraged a mosh pit, honored Nipsey Hussle, and bust some of his own moves on stage. He ended his set by teasing a new song that offers a new twist to the classic melody from Rufus & Chaka Khan’s hit song “Hollywood.”
“I need you have your phones out now,” IDK advised the crowd gathered in front of him at the Tidal stage Saturday afternoon. “This so going to be a … moment!”
The reason this moment at Made in America needed to be documented is that IDK — the rapper born Jason Mills, formerly known as Jay IDK — has a new album called IsHeReal that’s due out next week. And once the world hears that music, IDK presumes, such small gatherings of his fans may not be possible. Next year, he’ll be on the Rocky Stage!
We’ll see if that happens. But this is for certain: IDK served up the most hard-hitting musical gut punch of the early hours of Made in America, Day One, and the British-born, Maryland-raised emcee did it without pretending to be anything he’s not. “I never said I was a street n—,” the 27-year-old rapper said repeatedly, instead identifying himself as someone who had done some extraordinarily stupid things when he was younger, and had lived to tell about it. His set was too short, but long enough to shake the festival to life.
The first hometown hero to hit the stage was David Bowden, the 27-year-old singer-songwriter whose stage name matches his performance attire: PinkSweat$.
Bowden has already had one streaming-service hit on his hands with his ballad “Honesty,” and his Saturday afternoon set on the Liberty Stage suggested he has a bright future ahead of him.
The singer with a pleasing tenor that moves up into falsetto range is categorized as an R&B singer, but the songs on his two EPs — Volume 1 and Volume 2 — diverge from the electronic textured foundations of contemporary R&B. Instead, songs like “Cocaine” are built on acoustic underpinnings, and their sturdy melodies invited the crowd to sing and sway even if they were hearing the songs for the first time. And while many of those songs started out gentle, as they built they pushed with the force of aggressive rock. On stage, Bowden talked about hanging outside the festival gates to hear the acts play in previous years, without ever getting into the site. “People, this is Made in America! We used to stand outside the gates and wave,” he recalled. “Now we here.”
The first act up on the Liberty Stage — the second of the fest’s two biggest stages — was Grace Carter. (No relation to Shawn Carter a.k.a. Jay-Z that we know of.) The British neo-soul singer wore a floor-length white gown. Backed by a keyboard player and drummer, her warmly expressive vocal drifted pleasantly across the festival site along with a welcome cool breeze.
Carter, who’s recorded a ghostly cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” made a positive impression, but her music would have been better suited to an intimate space after the sun went down. As if to underscore that point, her sunny afternoon set was cut short by technical difficulties and she was unable to perform her final song.
While Carter kicked off the Liberty Stage acts, first up on the Rocky stage was festival newcomer Dominic Fike. In a teal jumpsuit and signature Apple teardrop tattoo, the 23-year-old SoundCloud singer and rapper from Naples, Fla., opened the set with noticeable nerves, dropping expletives as he alternated between acoustic and electric guitar and keyboard before a tepid crowd. But as Fike eased into “3 Nights,” his breezy debut single, fans flocked to the stage, singing along to the earworm chorus.
After a meteoric rise in 2018 following the release of a six-track demo he recorded while on house arrest, Fike’s Philadelphia set marks the first stop of his first world tour, “Rain or Shine.”
The Vans Warped Tour, the traveling festival that played the Philadelphia area every year for over two decades, came to be known as “Punk Rock Summer Camp” due to the youth of its audience and its role as an annual initiation rite for fans getting their first taste of rock and roll.
A Labor Day weekend institution in Philadelphia for eight years now, Made in America plays the same role for hip-hop.
That’s particularly apparent early in the day, when the crowd is at its youngest, as high school-aged fans in patriotic colors and NBA jerseys come bounding down the Parkway in pursuit of the first acts to hit the stage.
On Saturday at 2 p.m., an impressively large number gathered for 99 Neighbors, an interracial rap collective from Burlington, Vt., who opened up Made in America 2019 on the Tidal stage.
The band’s fans were up to speed, bouncing in unison as the first beats hit, and shrieking in approval as a key question was asked in the opening song, “Welcome to Chili’s”: “Where the weed at?”
As the set progressed, the 99 rappers professed their positive first impressions of Philadelphia, and took a break from their high energy, less-than-30-minute set by making it clear they had done demographic research before hitting the stage: “I hear there’s a lot of people from Delco here,” one 99 rapper said. “If you’re from Delco, make some noise.”