Not a lot of acts in hip-hop enjoy long-term success, and not many events in the oversaturated summer festival market are drawing record crowds this year.
Soundset resoundingly proved itself the exception to both rules Sunday.
Marking its 10th anniversary and second year at the State Fairgrounds, Minnesota’s little-hip-hop-fest-that-could didn’t even offer any giant names or anything too rare or extraordinary to celebrate the big occasion. Soundset 2017 was mostly business as usual. And the business was a little messy but otherwise very, very good.
The biggest Soundset crowd yet — about 35,000 people strong — converged under near-perfect summer kickoff weather on the fairgrounds for 10 hours of mostly nonstop hip-hop.
Cobbled together as always by Minneapolis’ trendsetting/detecting independent hip-hop label Rhymesayers, the eclectic lineup was spread over four stages and ranged in style from ’90s heroes Lauryn Hill and Talib Kweli to ’90s-born hot-newcomers Travis Scott and D.R.A.M., and from Top 40 flirters T.I. and Gucci Mane to hometown indie favorites Atmosphere, Brother Ali and P.O.S.
More so than its previous years on the grounds of Canterbury Park, the festival reiterated hip-hop’s broad appeal across generations, ages and sexes (although this year’s lineup was once again rather light on women; perhaps Hill is powerful enough to count as the equivalent of four male rappers). The fact that more teenagers than ever came out to it bodes well for the next 10 years, too.
“Hip-hop brings more races and cultures together than any other art form,” Kweli fittingly pointed out during his mid-afternoon set on the Fifth Element Stage — newly relocated between the horse-show coliseum and the cattle barn. No kidding on that blending-cultures thing.
Just as noteworthy as all the acts who performed this year was who all didn’t play, or went on late.
Arguably the day’s most anticipated new artist, Lil Uzi Vert was a last-minute no-show, for reasons not made clear. At least Mac Miller had an all-too-legit reason to cancel his set along with an appearance at another of this weekend’s big festivals, Sasquatch near Seattle: He purportedly wanted to be with his girlfriend, Ariana Grande, whose concert in Manchester, England, was the site of last week’s deadly suicide bombing.
Miller announced his cancellations to fans via Twitter and added, “Thank you for understanding. I’ll be back. Love always.” (At press time, Lil Uzi had yet to send any apologies to fans.)
Meanwhile, Pusha T purportedly ran into flight trouble and went on late, as did Ty Dolla $ign. All these changes wreaked havoc on the schedules. And here we thought the notoriously clockless Hill would be the trouble spot this year, but she actually took the stage right on cue.
Hill was right on target, too, enlightening the crowd — three-fourths of which was too young to have seen her before — with a deeper-grooving set complete with a large band and a nod toward music’s spiritual power. And here we thought Brother Ali would have the most religious set (the Minneapolis lyricist kept it pretty light and jovial, especially when young sidekick Dem Atlas joined him).
A lot of this year’s attendees said they weren’t rabid about any particular act on the lineup but instead are just certain Soundset will deliver the goods. That includes the many fans from throughout the Midwest who have made it an annual trek.
“Nobody in Chicago believes me, but it’s bigger and better than anything we have there,” said Anthony Kraus, 26, who has made the eight-hour drive three times.
The locals’ faith in the festival was cemented long ago. Talking backstage after his current band ZuluZuluu opened up the main-stage lineup, Minneapolis rapper/producer Greg Grease couldn’t help but reminisce about the first Soundset: His old group the Usual Suspects also kicked off the music that year, when the festival drew 12,000 people to the Metrodome parking lot.
“Look at how much it has grown and evolved in 10 years,” marveled Grease, who credited the Twin Cities music community for the event’s boom. “Without the music scene here, this wouldn’t be what it is.”
Here’s a rundown on the locals and non-locals who stood out the most amid everything we saw on Sunday.
Most superstar-like appearance: More likely to be seen in an arena than a festival, T.I. came off like the big stud of the day (no pun on the nearby equestrian buildings). He had the crowd rapping along to his early hits “Bring Em Out” and “U Don’t Know Me,” and laughing along to his braggadocious between-song banter. Too bad he gave up some of his abbreviated set time to the far less known Tee Grizzley, about whom he cheered, “He just got out!”
Best case to learn your instrument: Like the Roots’ appearance at last year’s Soundset, Hill’s band truly performed nonstop in its early evening set Sunday. They seamlessly jumped from song to song and even era to era, as her solo classic “Ex-Factor” bled into her Fugees favorites “How Many Mics” and “Fu-Gee-La,” with Hill all the while throwing out cues like a cross between an orchestra conductor and a line cook.
Best fill-in: With a few days to fill the time slot left by Miller, organizers were able to book veteran Bay Area rapper E-40 last-minute, and he nearly stole the show. It helped that the crowd already knew many of his songs, including the gritty “Function” and the fun stop-and-go ditty “Choices (Yup).”
Best showings by newcomers: Thanks to there being no sign of Mr. Dolla $ign, the somewhat quirky and comical newbies Aminé and D.R.A.M. wound up performing back-to-back on the Fifth Element Stage and made for a charmingly oddball couple. The Portland, Ore.-based Animé smiled broadly as the crowd giddily sang along to his hit “Caroline.” Virgina-reared D.R.A.M. humorously started out like a smooth, Teddy Pendergrass-like R&B singer with a small band behind him, but built and built into madcap fun.
Most welcome return: Sidelined by a kidney transplant and other health complications in recent years, P.O.S. went from being a ubiquitous presence at Soundset to missing in action. His early-afternoon main-stage set made a strong case for his new album, “Chill, Dummy,” before peaking with “Get Down” and “F- Your Stuff” as if he just picked up where he left off.
The Prodigal Son Award: Bloomington-reared bro rapper Mod Sun wasn’t quite as impressive a choice filling in for Lil Uzi on one of the main stages — rarely has a rapper sounded so sing-songy and yet atonal — but he did provide one of the day’s most colorful if somewhat unbelievable back stories. “I’ve been thrown out from Soundset three times for smoking weed,” he claimed (hard to believe only because security would be fighting a losing battle if it tossed everyone for that offense). At least this part rang true and sweet: “This is a dream come true,” he also said.
Room for improvement: Relocating the Fifth Element Stage to a more out-of-the-way corner of the fairgrounds seemed to help traffic flow, but it didn’t improve sound problems. The big crowds who flooded the area for Kweli and Denzel Curry had trouble hearing the unnecessarily weak sound system.
The other big improvement could be keeping fans better informed amid all the schedule changes; and not just via the official Soundset app or Twitter (rendered useless by the lack of decent cell service and Wi-Fi). What’s the point of having announcers between acts if all they announce is how important Rhymesayers is to Minnesota? Ten years in, I think we got that part.