It has survived thunderstorms, severe winds, unseasonably cool rain deluges and even a tornado threat one year.
For its 11th installment Sunday, the Soundset hip-hop festival was dealt dangerous heat advisories by Minnesota’s Wheel of Weather Misfortune. As usual, though, the 10-hour, 40-plus-act music marathon didn’t miss a beat. On the contrary, an even warmer-than-usual mood seemed to permeate the crowd, down slightly in numbers to around 30,000 baking fans (but still by far the biggest fest in town).
Held at the State Fairgrounds for the third straight year — it’s hard to think of it being held anywhere else at this point, considering how big and sprawling it is now — Soundset long ago eschewed the stereotype of hip-hop audiences being troublesome. The biggest malfeasance on Sunday may have been fans damaging the atmosphere with their aerosol sunblock bottles.
Even by its already high standards of trumpeting the positive side of hip-hop, this year’s Soundset offered a lot of messages of rise-above hopefulness and love-one-another togetherness.
Californian radio and TV host Sway Calloway, who has emceed the Soundset main stages for many years now, raved early in the lineup, “You got the No. 1 hip-hop festival in the world. So celebrate that, Twin Cities!”
Fans and performers alike took that mantra to heart. Everyone from young, bubbly star Russ to old-school icon (and one of the most controversial rappers of all time) Ice-T gave off sunny, bright vibes.
“When your back is against the wall, that’s how you find out who you really are,” the Hawaiian-shirt-wearing New Jersey rapper Russ preached as fans crammed against each other toward the two side-by-side main stages waiting for the veteran act due on after him, the Wu-Tang Clan. He wasn’t so positive when the crowd started chanting “Wu-Tang! Wu-Tang!” though.
North Carolina’s razor-witted MC Rapsody — delivering one of the day’s best main-stage sets — spoke specifically to the women and girls in the crowd, who may have been more plentiful than ever.
“People ask me why I do what I do,” she boomed as she pointed toward fans. “I do it for her and her and her, and your future wife or daughter.”
The audience also seemed to be younger than ever, which could be directly attributed to the headlining slots going to Top 40 hip-hop stars Migos and Logic, each coming off 2017 megahits.
To their credit, though, teens coming for the red-hot hitmakers showed up early and endured the day of heat — more so than the older fans who, perhaps recognizing their sweat limitations, came later and added to the swell of the crowd come Wu-Tang time.
Celebrating the 25th anniversary of their seminal debut, “Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers,” the nine-man Staten Island, N.Y., rap crew kicked off its hourlong set with the album’s opening track, “Bring Da Ruckus,” and tore through the rest almost in order. It turned into one of Soundset’s most applaudable, unforgettable moments — even after similarly impressive, relevance-reiterating showings by the likes of Ice Cube, the Roots and Common in recent years.
As if following Wu-Tang wasn’t challenging enough, Texas neo-soul cult hero Erykah Badu was also something of a left-field pick for the fest. She didn’t exactly change lanes to appease the masses, either. Taking the stage hidden under a giant hat and long mane of hair, she lost a good portion of the crowd from the get-go and didn’t win too many over starting with the spacey intro “Hello.” She eventually hit her groove in “ ...& On” and kept up that momentum sporadically for the next half-hour — way too brief a gig for her first appearance in town since the early 2000s, but so it goes at festivals.
As has become commonplace at this festival in recent years, Soundset was hit with another last-minute cancellation — though this one was far more serious than the oft-cited “travel complications.” Texas band Brockhampton bowed out after abuse and sexual misconduct accusations emerged against one of its vocalists, Ameer Vann. The group, newly signed to a high-buck RCA Records contract, canceled all its tour dates and issued a statement saying, “We don’t tolerate abuse of any kind.”
Minneapolis’ stalwart rapper Brother Ali — part of the Rhymesayers crew that created Soundset — was tapped last-minute to fill Brockhampton’s slot. And predictably, he went above and beyond to make things right, using his usual trove of spiritually balanced, self-loving anthems.
So it went at Soundset 2018; the good overtook the bad like never before.
Here are more impressions from Sunday's sweltering Soundset:
Mic-drop-worthy stage humor: The only local rapper given a main-stage slot this year, Prof earned a more crazed audience response than plenty of the touring stars. But he still wondered, “Who here has never heard me?” When he saw only two people raise their hands, he cracked, “I don’t believe that, or I’d be rich.”
Rapsody dropped a guffaw-inducing line, too, when she asked for a single man to come to the stage to serenade her. “Are you 18?” she asked as her youthful subject appeared. “I don’t wanna get caught up in any R. Kelly kind of [stuff].”
Fighting the boys club while making ’em blush: New York rapper Young M.A. — the biggest guest on the Atmosphere & Friends stage besides Ice-T — let the sexually explicit lyrics fly in her midafternoon set, a subtle and quite amusing way of underlining that she’s also a proud lesbian and one of the best wordplay masters of the day. She was especially impressive the several times her DJ stopped the beats and she kept going a cappella.
Most fitting moniker: Young New York up-and-comer A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie lived up to his name, first by taking the stage in a thick hoodie sweatshirt despite the sticky heat (it only lasted one song, though). He was true to the “boogie,” too, sparking some of the liveliest dance parties in front of the main stages with “Drowning” and several other viral hits.
Youth is not always an asset: A couple of the day’s other baby acts, Jaden Smith and Russ, each came off a little too cutesy and cuddly amid the plainly superior talent of the day. The son of actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, Jaden sounded like TV’s Urkel as he hoarsely, hyperactively dropped F-bombs to try to pump up the crowd. And Russ came off like an unlikely John Mayer rap hybrid with his sing-songy love songs.
Still, you had to feel bad for Russ, enduring the Wu-Tang chants while he was on stage — or at least you did until he shamelessly asked, “How many of you came to see me over anyone else?” He got some cheers anyway.
Scariest moment: Ever the intimidator, Ice-T appeared ready to strangle the young fan he brought to the stage, Dylan, after the rapper asked if the kid knew what “O.G.” stands for. “Original gamer?” Dylan bravely responded, prompting a hearty laugh only after Ice realized he was kidding. That set up a string of gritty classics, including “Colors,” “New Jack Hustler” and, of course, “O.G. (Original Gangster).”
Earning the top spots: After Badu’s discombobulated set, Los Angeles rabble rouser Tyler, the Creator gave an atypically focused, straight-ahead performance that livened things back up, especially when Badu joined him for “Can I Get a Kiss.” Emo rap star Logic kept the presumably exhausted crowd dancing till show’s end, balancing out the seriousness of his anti-suicide hit “1-800-273-8255” with bouncier, rowdier fare such as “44 More” and “Overnight.”
Walking the talk: Sandwiched between Tyler and Logic, Georgia trio Migos inexplicably went on late when the schedule was already behind, and thus they got cut off by Soundset organizers midway through the song “Walk It Talk It.” They did fit in high-adrenaline, pyro- and confetti-enhanced versions of their choppy, chanty tunes “Slippery” and “Fight Night,” but there’s no fighting curfew at the fairgrounds.