Made in America is back to being itself again.
The eighth annual version of Jay-Z’s music festival came to a close on Sunday night with a second consecutive 8½-hour day of hard banging hip-hop and R&B on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Sunday’s bill — topped by Houston rapper Travis Scott, and featuring feminist pop hero Lizzo, Philly rappers Lil Uzi Vert and Tierra Whack and others — drew a much larger crowd than the previous day’s lineup, which was headlined by Cardi B, and the scene was cacophonous and often chaotic on the Parkway.
In other words, it was a music festival, and a unique one at that, taking place smack in the middle of a major American city, with the rugged sounds made by mostly African American artists being brought to life on urban streets, rather than out in an open field in the middle of nowhere or a football stadium away from the center of town.
With its sparser crowds on Saturday, MIA seemed almost unnaturally pleasant and easygoing. Sunday was a messier day, with the roar of dirt bikes raising a ruckus over by the Rodin Museum and such rough-cut rappers as Gucci Mane and Blueface making noise over by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Almost all Made in America tickets are sold as two-day passes but many concert-goers show up for only one day, and Sunday clearly was the more popular choice. That was partly due to Scott, the auto-tune-loving rapper who, as Jay-Z does with Made in America itself, is known as much for curating a holistic hip-hop experience as he is for his rapping skills. As he puts it on “Sicko Mode,” from his 2018 hot album Astroworld: “Who put this ... together? I’m the glue.”
It was also due to the collective drawing power up and down the bill, with emo-mumble rap star Lil Uzi (playing his third Made in America, if you count last year’s cameo) and currently red hot singer-rapper-flautist Lizzo leading a strong slate of black women, including Whack and Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion.
Scott hit the stage at 10 p.m. a half an hour after his appointed start time, with his scaled-down festival adaptation of the funhouse ride Astroworld tour — named after a long-shuttered Houston area amusement park — that played the Wells Fargo Center as a full-blown spectacle last December.
Accompanied by his DJ sidekick Chase B, the artist born Jacques Webster — who like his friend and mentor Kanye West has become a reality TV star due to his romance with a member of Kardashian family (in his case, “self made” billionaire Kylie Jenner) — opened with Astroworld’s “Stargazing.” That song established Scott’s basic sonic strategy of constructing hallucinogenic hip-hop songs out of gut shaking bass, computer processed vocals and often pretty melodies that emerge from the murk.
Too many songs were riddled with gunshot sounds and ended abruptly with big bombastic explosions — a sonic, momentum killing tic that also marred Cardi’s set the night before — but at its best Scott’s music conjures something transporting out of the chaotic elements he cuts and pastes together, as on “Love Galore” (a collaboration with SZA, who’s voice was sampled) and the cataclysmic “Sicko Mode,” which ended in a fireworks burst.
All told, the performance lasted less than an hour, a few minutes less than Cardi’s the night before. I didn’t necessarily need to hear more than that from Scott, but this year’s new abbreviated Made in America sets didn’t really feel like worthy climactic finishes to a world-class festival, more like the final note than a special set to close out a long day and night on the Parkway.
There was a moment in Philadelphia rapper Lil Uzi Vert’s set that was especially telling. He was talking to the DJ about tempo, and prompting him to make a decision: If the DJ wanted slow, play something along those lines. But, he continued, “If you want to turn me up, turn me up.”
The DJ picked the latter, and Vert ratcheted up the energy and performed his 2015 track “Super Saiyan.” But the moment spoke to not only Vert’s set, but also arguably a number of sets with the festival: the need to balance the darker, more emotional trap songs with the ones that makes people jump. The hometown boy performed roughly two dozen songs spanning his career, giving the audience “XO Tour Llif3.” At times he seemed more interested in vibing than hitting every lyric, but delivered a set in which he appeared both confident and at ease.
It wasn’t just the crowd enjoying his set — MIA royalty Beyoncé and Jay-Z were spotted backstage at Lil Uzi’s set. Beyonce was also spotted rocking out to Lizzo earlier in the evening.
English keyboard-player and crooner James Blake isn’t a hip-hop artist, but with synth-heavy ethereal vocals that seem to drift like the clouds of colorful smoke that often accompany him on stage, he makes for the perfect accompaniment to a hip-hop festival. And on the breezy closing night of Made in America, Blake’s laid-back melancholy vocals made for the perfect accompaniment to a decidedly mellow two-day event.
Relying on strobe lights, smoke machines and onstage rain — which, at one point, appeared to fall directly on a camera operator’s head — to set the tone, Blake and his two-piece band eased into his older work, including “Life Round Here" and “Timeless,” before experiencing some autotune technical difficulties during “Miles High,” featuring a recorded rap from Made in America headliner Travis Scott. The voice of Andre 3000 — who has been spotted across Philly this summer playing his flute while filming the upcoming AMC show Dispatches from Elsewhere — was also featured during “Where’s the Catch?”
Mid-set, Blake stepped away from his keyboard to deliver a haunting “Are You in Love.” “This song’s about needing assurance from somebody,” he told the audience.
After performing crowd-favorite “Retrograde,” 30-year-old Blake, who has been vocal about his mental health and struggles with depression and anxiety, left the group with a message: “I think I missed most of my 20s because of anxiety and depression. … I hope you conquer it,” he said.
After the extremely male energy of Blueface and Gucci Mane on the festival’s main stages, Lizzo took the Liberty Stage and turned Made in America into her own personal hip-hop pop platform promoting feminist pride and self actualization.
Entering the stage by her lonesome — before later being joined by her dancers, the Big Girls — she opened with the title music from her hit album Cuz I Love You, bounding about the stage in red high tops, cut off shorts, and pigtails. Straight away, it was a bonding experience with her audience, as she reached for and hit the high notes: “I’m crying … because I love you.”
Lizzo’s early evening Liberty Stage time slot was the same one occupied by Spanish pop star Rosalia the night before, and for back-to-back nights it was the place for a bold dance music artist to put a singular vision across with confidence and clarity, and signal that the party had really gotten started.
The festival grounds were much more full on Sunday, though, thanks in large part to Lizzo herself, whose message of body positivity in her unstoppably energetic jams has been gaining serious cultural traction, to the point where old songs that should have been hits such as “Truth Hurts” a song that was released right after Lizzo played MIA the first time and wasn’t nearly as popular — are now climbing to the top of the charts.
With the possible exception of her closing “Juice,” when the singer and rapper broke out her secret weapon — a flute solo — “Truth Hurts” was the set’s big showstopper, with the most phones raised and the video rolling and even the dudes shaking everything they had, as every word was rapped along to in unison.
Lizzo told all the big girls in the crowd that they were all “beautiful, fine deserving superstars.” She thanked the non-big girls for their allyships and announced that for one night she was going to regard everyone in the crowd as an honorary big girl. “Come on over, the biscuits are delicious.”
As a whole, the Made In America weekend was largely devoid of political content, but Lizzo could be counted on to use the occasion to say something of substance and use it as introduction to one of her biggest self-esteem boosting hits: “My black life does matter,” she said. “I’m proud to be made in America, I’m proud to be big, I’m proud to be a woman.”
The challenge to be faced, she said, is that the world is full of 12-letter word persons “who want to take that joy away from us.” But the Lizzo lesson is that each individual has the power be their own soul mate and stop that from happening, As she told the Made in America audience: “You deserve to feel good as hell!”
On Sunday night, Made in America was about facing up to real musical festival problems. There were big crowds, it was difficult to get around, and there were tough decision to make.
Lizzo or Megan Thee Stallion? James Blake or Tierra Whack?
Megan Thee Stallion came with her breakout hits, but found a mostly low-energy audience at the Tidal stage, in no small part because she was 30 minutes late to a festival that otherwise runs pretty much on time. The stage selection didn’t help matters. Made in America has a pattern of putting acts who could be marquee performers to smaller stages that make for cramped, miserable crowds. This year, they planned Megan Thee Stallion, DaBaby and Philadelphia’s Tierra Whack — all of XXL Freshmen this year — to perform consecutively in an area that arguably could have been too tight for any of their fan bases.
Still, Megan impressed with tracks like “Freak Nasty” and “Fire in the Booth Freestyle.” Plus she brought up fans to twerk onstage.
DaBaby made the anticipation worth it, rapping while wearing a crisp, vintage Dr. J jersey. His performances of “Suge” and “Baby Sitter” were highlights. The dust from pounding mosh pits rose as DaBaby ran through songs quickly. But he also made space for two guests: One being Megan the Stallion, who joined him for their popular collaboration “Cash S—” and the other being Lizzo, who performed “Truth Hurts.” (DaBaby and Lizzo even had a brief grind session onstage.)
Whack, the rising Philly rapper who is so idiosyncratic, self-assured, visually imaginative and just plain and simply good at what she does that she breathes life into the basic lone rapper and DJ stage presentation so effectively that it in no way seems a limitation.
While fans waited for her, Whack had a message to be read by fans displayed behind her: "Hello Made in America,” it read in part. “I used to sneak into this festival with my friends. Please follow you dreams, anything is possible.”
When she showed up, along with her musical partner — the skinny white guy DJ who goes by the stage name Zach Whack — Whack immediately demonstrated her winning wit and creative originality.
The rapper made her name last year with her Whack World debut, which contained 15 songs and 15 videos and 15 minutes. On Sunday night, she pulled from that mini-masterwork, rapping and singing songs about miss’s her dead dog, not missing her deadbeat Dad and how much she enjoys fruits and vegetables.
Whack has a bunch of new songs like “Clones” and “Only Child,” that show she’s capable of developing musical (and visual) ideas beyond 60 seconds, but the short and sweet Whack World tunes were just the thing, as a wearying two day fest drew to a close and a bunch of perky, pretty much irresistible songs seemed like just the thing for festival weary fans with diminished attention spans
And it was all Gucci — well, at least, for the first quarter of rapper Gucci Mane’s set Sunday evening.
Decked head to toe in Gucci sunglasses, shirt, shorts, socks and shoes, the founding father of trap received an emphatic welcome from a crowd filling the entire street in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Arts steps and spilling back onto the grass of Eakins Oval. But by the time the Atlanta trap god, born Radric Davis, busted into “I Think I Love Her” with a simple request that Philly get classy — the crowd had already begun to thin as festival-goers flocked to other stages.
Still, the artist deemed by Noisey “the most influential rapper of the past decade” finished strong, alternating between his older hits for his “day one doo-wop fans” and newer songs off his 14th studio album produced after he got out of prison in 2016, Delusions of Grandeur.
Many people come to Made in America dressed in patriotic colors, from Sixers jerseys to short shorts and American flag ensembles.
But how many show up to the Ben Franklin Parkway wearing their admiration for the Founding Father for whom Philadelphia’s grand boulevard is named on their face?
Only Blueface, the Los Angeles rapper born Johnathan Porter who took to the Liberty Stage on Sunday with his trademark Ben Franklin tattoo on his right side cheek.
Okay, maybe Blueface’s affection for Philadelphia’s favorite 18th century Renaissance man has more to do with Franklin’s face also appearing on $100 bills than Franklin’s discovery or electricity and founding the nations first public library.
In any case, it was the rapper’s second time in Philadelphia this summer concert season — he was also a featured performer at the Roots Picnic at the Mann Center. And he owes a measure of his success to Franklin: His 2018 song “Respect My Cryppin’,” which he performed on Sunday while encouraging fans to throw gang signs in the air, went viral in part due to a video that showed off his face tatt.
Blueface isn’t the most skilled wordsmith and he frequently raps with little regard to the rhythm of his own songs, but he’s an undeniably charismatic presence on stage, as skilled at getting the crowd hyped as he is fond of boasting about his sexual conquests.
Blueface followed a parade of warm up rappers on stage at the start of his set, which was attended by Sixer Ben Simmons, wearing an Allen Iverson throwback jersey for Day 2 (he also hung backstage with Gucci Mane). Two of those guest stars, the rap duo Coyotes, spoke out against President Donald Trump and ICE — with political invectives about Trump and his proposed border wall — in the first and only politically pointed remarks this critic heard from a Made in America stage all weekend.
Blueface was more interested in trying to get the women of MIA to flash him than continuing any line on logical inquiry, and where he succeeded in the quest or not, he did quite well on whipping the crowd into a frenzy on “Thotiana” (alas, without Cardi B, who appeared on the song’s remix, which she performed Saturday) and also the designer brand name dropping “Daddy,” on which he spit rhymes while clutching the front of his pants, which were in great danger of falling down despite his Dolce & Gabbana belt buckle.
With minutes until Jacob Banks’ showtime, the crowd was sparse around the Rocky Stage as KUR’s freestyle rap set blared in the distance, and the group who was there — decked in Astroworld merchandise — appeared to be occupying the front row of the festival main stage in hopes of staking out prime spots to catch headliner Travis Scott.
But neither the lack of numbers nor enthusiasm seemed to deter Banks, a British-Nigerian singer-songwriter, who kept his cool while delivering a fun and soulful set from his new album, Village.
In a bluesy style mixing African and Jamaican sounds backed by plenty of synth, the 28-year-old Banks danced along on stage while delivering top-notch vocals in a gravelly, rich baritone.
Banks’ act was one of the 2019 festival’s few non-rap acts, but by the end of his set, the dancing crowd appeared to buy in, waving hands in unison to “Rainy Day” and singing along to funky rendition of Coldplay’s “Fix You.”
By the time 23-year-old singer Amber Mark hit the stage on Sunday afternoon, Made in America Day 2 was cooking, with the Ben Franklin Parkway streets filling up in anticipation of the big name acts like Travis Scott, Lil Uzi Vert and Lizzo still to come.
Mark can’t compete with those marquee acts in terms of name recognition, but she made the most of her time in front of a packed Tidal stage. (She also was thankfully loud enough to drown out the sounds of the wheelie-popping motorbike riders zooming up and down a blocked off stretch of nearby 22nd Street that are a not welcome addition to the MIA cacophony this year — although Jay-Z is a fan, he was seen hanging out with Meek Mill protégé Chino Braxton.)
Along with Grace Parker and Jorja Smith, who performed on Saturday, Mark — who was raised on a farm outside of Nashville to a German mother and a Jamaican father — was one of a trio of alt-R&B up-and-comers aiming to make their mark on a MIA afternoon.
Mark was the least jazzy and most conventional pop act of the bunch, but, flanked by a quartet of dancers, she delivered the tunes to make her performance stick. Songs like “What If” turned the street in front of her into a makeshift dance floor, and had overeager knuckleheads climbing trees to get a better view, unaware they were being closely watched by the Philadelphia police officers who were also taking in the show.
Back in 2012 when it made its debut on the Ben Franklin Parkway, Made in America Made a big deal about its intention to run the gamut when it came to presenting all different styles and genre of music that were, you know… made in America. There were even Budweiser TV commercials back in the day in which Jay-Z suggested that we were going to see country bands yee- hawing on the Ben Franklin Parkway.
Eight years in, that seems unlikely to happen, unless Lil Nas X decides to ride his horses in from the “Old Town Road” for an ambush. Seriously, though: Why isn’t 2019’s most unlikely success story in Philadelphia this weekend? Talk about a missed opportunity.
But never mind country, Made in America has largely jettisoned all other styles that aren’t in Jay-Z’s hip and R&B wheelhouse, with a little EDM thrown in. That’s all well and good, it’s a formula that works, delivering big crowds and young audiences every year, though number were clearly down for the Cardi B-topped bill on Saturday.
That’s increasingly meant that Made in America is a place where there is no rock and roll, or at least acts that straight up signify as “rock” bands.The exception that proved the rule on Sunday was Charly Bliss, the Brooklyn quartet who opened up the second day of the festival at 2 p.m. sharp on the Tidal stage.
Fronted by singer-guitarist Eva Hendricks, who dressed for the occasion in a poufy pink outfit that made her look like could have walked off the set of Sesame Street, Charley Bliss thankfully performed as if unburdened by the responsibility of being the only rock band in town.