It took Soundset only a couple of years to find its foothold. Eight years in, the Twin Cities area’s biggest music festival finally found its perfect balance.
Scattered between two adjoining main stages and two massive tents in a field outside Canterbury Park in Shakopee — premises it will vacate next year, it turns out — the daylong hip-hop celebration felt extra sprawling and marathon-like Sunday.
The noteworthy acts were more spread out throughout the day. That’s because there were more noteworthy acts, period, if not as many famous acts. And there were more performers of varying pedigree, background and eras.
Buzzing newcomers such as J. Cole, Vic Mensa and Vince Staples bumped up against veteran acts such as Ice Cube, Ludacris and Dilated Peoples on the schedule. Local mainstays Atmosphere, Brother Ali and Dessa were more the side dishes than the main course. Tough-guy rappers such as Yelawolf and Aesop Rock meshed with strong women, besides just Dessa. And poppy hip-hop makers such as Logic and SonReal performed opposite edgy idealists who will likely never land radio hits, such as Clockwork Indigo and B. Dolan.
Even with performances all over the hip-hop map, most of the 30,000 attendees stayed all day in the rain to soak up the music. In his headlining set, Cole recognized the wide array of fans and their anything-goes attitude: “I don’t care if you were with me since Day 1 or only like one song,” he said. “You stayed out in the rain to be here with me and have my deep respect.”
Here’s a mostly respectful rundown of Sunday’s flood of performances.
Best in show: It quickly became apparent J. Cole deserved the headlining slot, as well as his best new artist Grammy nomination. The North Carolina-bred Jay Z protégé lit up the crowd early with “Fire Squad” and displayed charisma and command in a way that was more Kanye-like than Jay Z. Here’s betting he headlines a lot more festivals after this.
Another big one: Kanye’s Detroit cohort Big Sean also made a star-making turn a few sets earlier on the main stage, playing the stud card by going bare-chested in the cold rain. But his best moments were showing a tender side in the brighter songs “One Man Can Change the World” and “Blessings.”
Old guard: Passionately introduced by fest host Sway Calloway as one of the top rappers of all time, Ice Cube not surprisingly reiterated the relevance of such classics as “Straight Outta Compton” and “It Was a Good Day.” Ludacris was more of a pleasant surprise, though, charming the crowd between songs but also spiritedly reminding us just how many hits he’s had, including “Act a Fool” and “Pimpin’ All Over the World.”
With the band: More main-stage acts than ever performed with live bands, from Cole to Ludracris. They ranged in style broadly from Yelawolf’s Southern-rocky hard-rock unit — which threw in snippets of “Whole Lotta Love” and “War Pigs” — to Dessa’s elegant yet edgy ensemble, enhanced with violinist Jessy Greene.
Where the boys are: Just as Dessa joked about having lipstick on her teeth on the video screen, Oakland, Calif., rapper G.L.A.M. had a hilarious moment in the Fifth Element tent, where she stopped to adjust her tank top. “I ain’t gonna be pulling no Janet Jackson today,” she quipped. It was a sign of her set’s fierce energy, repeated later in the tent by Sa-Roc of Washington, D.C., who channeled Notorious B.I.G. masterfully in “DC x Brooklyn.”
Most unintentionally humble brag: “We’re super [bleeping] famous in Canada. Just saying.” So declared Vancouver, B.C., rapper SonReal, who had already made himself into something of a joke by sporting a matching Hawaiian shirt and shorts combo. So it was hard to tell if his sappy ballad “Try” was a Flight of Conchords-like musical joke or real.
Most from the hosts: Atmosphere may have set aside its headlining duties, but it didn’t lay down and roll over. The Minneapolis stalwarts split up fan favorites such as “Puppets” and “God Loves Ugly” with the three most ambitious and contemplative tracks from last year’s album “Southsiders,” including the opener “January on Lake Street” and an especially powerful “Fortunate.”
Mind your matters: Chuck D called rap music “the CNN of the ghetto,” but you would have heard more about the Black Lives Matter movement and related nationwide protests on CNN than you would at Soundset. The only time this writer witnessed these topics come up was when Atmosphere frontman Slug introduced “Flicker,” an ode to late Twin Cities rapper Eyedea. He dedicated it to friends who died young — “whether they were doing the wrong drug or shot unarmed by a cop.”
Fairly certain next year will be even bigger: Soundset organizers tweeted the news that their fest will move back into town to the Minnesota State Fairgrounds next year (May 29). Not only will this make good use of the fair’s underutilized grandstand, it will be much easier and safer on the transit front. The only downside might be we no longer get to hear all the West Coast rappers mispronounce Shakopee.