weeknd-lolla

Lollapalooza 2015 Highlights and Lowlights

(Photo: @WhoDough for @gowherehiphop)

Another Lollapalooza in the books! I needed a full day to recover from another jam-packed 3-day experience this weekend. All the while, my mind hasn’t stopped racing with the variety of artists I saw and what I could take away from a different Lollapalooza than in years past.

Here is the breakdown of the weekend, section by section below, with highlights like who my favorite overall performer was (not who you may think), and a few lowlights and critiques on where I think artists can improve, and a few sentimental festival stories along the way. Feel free to scroll to a section or video that catches your eye because otherwise, you’ll have to settle in.

UPDATE: If you also want a unique perspective on Lolla, check out my physiological experience where I tracked my steps for the entire weekend. Pretty fun read too 🙂

Alas, let’s, naturally, start with The Weeknd.

The 2 artists I circled

It’s easy for someone to say now, but we were really up on The Weeknd’s breakout from his debut House of Balloons release ahead of the overall curve. I remember where I was: riding with co-founder Maks G who played the nocturnal tunes en route to a Marcus Shadden fashion show in the spring of 2011. The nighttime Chicago skyline matched the moody jams from the then-unknown singer and I was hooked all summer long, and then in general for the years since.

That’s why it’s pretty neat to reflect that for most of that 2011, we didn’t even know what The Weeknd looked like. 4 years later, he’s headlining the first night of Lollapalooza, with 2 top 10 singles at the moment, and 1 from earlier this year already tucked under his belt.

He’s arguably the hottest, biggest star this summer.

The Weeknd, as a result, is prime for R&B/pop crossover superstardom, as dissected in this great New York Times interview piece last week. His status created a different feel for his set on Friday night than when I saw him last for the Kiss Land Tour.

The difference between Weeknd from a year and a half ago and today was seen at the end of his set. He performed said top 10 singles “The Hills” and “Can’t Feel My Face” towards the end of the set, with the fire pyrotechnics aiding the latter and igniting the biggest rise out of the thousands watching. Actually, maybe it was the new MJ dance moves he debuted at the end of the song that further pay homage to his MJ-esque single? …Was this the same guy??

I know what you’re thinking: The Weeknd has changed. He sold out. I disagree. I actually think he’s well on his way to striking just the right balance of staying true to himself while increasing his mainstream appeal in a tasteful way. The Hills is the yin to Can’t Feel My Face’s yang. It’s my favorite between the two singles and securely on the top tier of Weeknd’s catalogue for me. The Hills blew up, but it’s really as dark and lonely of a song as Weeknd has in his library. I was most interested to hear him perform this one live and it didn’t disappoint. The booming sound of the production translates real well in person.

The moment that felt different was when The Weeknd came back out for an encore. I expected he would, but didn’t realize at the time that he never really does.

The long break in between his last salute led me to believe he was done for good, about 15 minutes before the fest was set to close. But eventually, on came “Wicked Games”.

We crept up further and enjoyed the methodical song as locked armed couples vibed to it nearby. It wasn’t the type of song that gets the biggest rise, especially that in most artists’ cases that’s the encore, so this moment is what drove home the realization of Weeknd’s growth and career arc. The latter of which still very much in progress and still rising. Needless to say, looking forward to diving into Beauty Behind The Madness later this month.

***

The other artist I circled upon first seeing on the Lolla schedule: Kid Cudi. I’ve seen Cudi a few times already and love the variety of songs he can play to switch the mood up. Plus, his voice translates even more powerfully in person than on the record.

Cudi’s older material is still a go-to for my creativity playlist and out of all of Lollapalooza’s artists this year, I definitely know his library the best.

He took to the same Bud Light stage as Weeknd the night before. (The Bud Light Stage and Samsung Stage are the 2 biggest at Lolla.) The difference in setting though was that while Weeknd was performing under the night sky, only lit by the iconic skyscrapers behind him, Cudi’s set concluded as the sun just began to set.

This led to a different mood that ultimately had me yearning for nighttime for Cudi, overall. That being said, there were plenty of perks to seeing Cudi rock out during the daytime. He actually set the tone for the rest of the nightfall when he performed “Pursuit of Happiness” twice in a row. 

Cudi’s first rendition of (maybe) his biggest single in his career was of the original version. The slowed down, sing-along version where Cudi simply stood, feet planted behind his iconic red mic. Then he and his band blended right into the uptempo club version and before we knew it, Cudi was performing into the crowd and running end to end to give the entire first row some dap (I caught this on Snapchat, sorry in advance for the head-tilt.)

This was indeed the most heartwarming part of Cudi’s set. He frequently thanked the Chicago crowd, seemed genuinely amazed at the endless sea of thousands of people in front of him (had to be 80K for the Bud Light Stage), and just marveled that this is his job and that it’s a lot of fun. For him to be in the crowd for this song simply illustrated that love to another level. It’s authenticity like this that make you feel like you can just sit in a room and chat with Cudi like he’s one of your friends.

Not to mention the authenticity in his music too. One of the songs that played better under the sun, rather than the stars, was his new single “Confused”. Cud had just dropped it the night before and performed it acoustically for the first time live to end his set. No encore.

As you’ll see below, Cudi strangely says “OK, bye!” as what turned out to be his final send-off. Not mad at that, that’s just Cudi. I satisfyingly chuckled when it became clear there would be no encore, in fact. Because as I mentioned above, he poured out his heart to the crowd plenty already. He didn’t need another speech or song to cement it more than it already was.

The other standout highlight of Cudi’s Lolla set is one that’s sentimental to me. He blended “Embrace The Martian” into his “Memories” x “Day N Nite” hype mix and it reminded me of my personal all-time favorite concert video we at Gowhere Hip Hop have ever produced: Cudi @ SXSW 2013. My experience with Cudi there will probably never be topped so I simply can’t set a ranking of where Saturday night stands. I just know I flat out enjoyed Cudi at Lolla. He was awesome and the feeling was mutual.

ICYMI: Our own @5ABIOmatic with his positive review of Cudi + the entire Day 2 experience

My favorite overall performer: FKA twigs

FKA twigs | Photo: Sgt. Tibs

FKA twigs | Photo: Sgt. Tibs

That’s right. Over Cudi and Weeknd, two artists I would consider in my top 10 right now, easy.

And amazingly enough, “save the best for last” actually came through for me this year at Lolla. I just didn’t expect it to happen like this, unlike festivals past.

I, much like many of the critics out there, was a fan of FKA twigs debut album, LP1, as about a handful of the songs resonated with me months after and still today in my alternative R&B playlists. She was definitely circled on my Sunday night schedule after missing her at the Metro late last year. That’s not the main reason though. I’m already aware of her performances on award shows or the like, plus her innovative music videos in general.

I also knew I had to be there to catch her intro. I feared though that I wouldn’t be able to catch A$AP Rocky perform “Problems” when I got a sense he was closing with that at 8:30, when FKA was set to start at the nearby, smaller Pepsi stage.

I ended up enjoying “Problems” from a distance, the one song I really wanted to see A$AP perform, as I sped walked to the outer edge of the Pepsi stage when FKA’s haunting LP1 intro blared in the abyss of darkness ahead.

(I had even more goosebumps as the brightest light that shined above was the eerie purple glow from the Metropolitan Tower peeking over the top of the stage.)

I weaved my way through the crowd and went as far to the right as possible, before cutting inward (Pro Tip!). I ended up in the 3rd row while randomly meeting up with a group of friends already posted there. Enjoying her performance with them, all bigger fans of FKA than me going into it, made the experience even better.

The first immediate observation once I got settled in was the incredible lighting. Everything about it. FKA first sang under a flickering white strobe light that hit her face perfectly. The next song was conducted under an eerie blood red light that emphasized the smoke around the stage. The set’s third song featured a neon blue light that stretched even further out into the crowd and fit wonderfully under the dark blue night sky, shortly after the sun had completely set (so it wasn’t pitch black yet.)

Seeing FKA twigs in this setting, at the smaller yet significantly large crowd, was absolutely perfect and matched her music even more.

I kinda lied actually. The first observation anyone makes at an FKA show is her movements. Equal parts precise, hypnotic, seductive, and above all: beautiful. It looks like she is having a theraputic experience with each song, down to each slow, contorting, and smooth flailing of her arms or legs. It adds so much to her stage presence and introduces a strong performance art aspect to her set that, honestly, most of the rappers I saw at Lolla this weekend lacked (more on that later…)

For the first 15 minutes, I was captivated by FKA’s dancing. Her sudden arm swings would brilliantly match the pulsating parts of the production and it made the song all the more powerful every time. The visuals, down to her Nike Pro compression peaking out her red/blue tye dye combo to match the lighting, were next level.

CLdg9c7UAAQVPZk

 

During this first stretch though, I was also surprised at her minimal singing. It’s not like she was skipping notes, she just rode out long instrumental solos with her moves. My favorite was when she would pump fake sing by holding the mic to her lips but ultimately switching to her next contorted move.

The latter two-thirds of her set found the transition into some of the aforementioned handful of songs I still listened to such as “Two Weeks”, “Pendulum”, and “Video Girl”. She even got another dancer into the act towards the end, resulting in an amazing tandem dance performance that I can’t do justice with mere words. It’s an aspect to her show to file in the back of your head for the next time FKA goes out on tour.

Looking ahead, FKA twigs is prepping a new album, LP2, I presume it will be called. She said as much during the lone moment she simply talked to the Chicago crowd. This came about halfway through the set, and after expressing her gratitude towards the crowd and the city of Chicago in general, FKA launched into 2 new songs for the album.

One was yesterday’s “Figure 8”. The other is a soundscape I can’t get out of my head and am eagerly anticipating the release of, as much as any other live teaser in recent memory. As strong as this preview was for me (and of course it felt even bigger in person), just my first, overall experience of FKA twigs made for about as impressive of a first impression as I could have expected. This pretty much guarantees I’ll be at all of her future shows too.

Room for improvement

It’s not all praise here. Throughout the weekend, I noticed a lot of subtle flaws whether its within a setlist, transitions, or even a desire for more creativity.

I should first note that I have a pretty high bar to begin with. 7 years of going to literally hundreds of rap shows has desensitized the teenage enthusiasm of discovering a new artist or seeing one I’m already a fan of. As such though, I feel these critiques carry even more weight.

I’ll start with my biggest letdown. Where is the creative stage presence, rappers? I was thinking about this even before FKA twigs electrified with her mix of dance, performance art, and creative lighting… it’s 2015, how can we progress behind the general go-to moves of rapper hands and jumping up and down to get the crowd hyped? I understand in most cases rappers are constricted with just a mic and a stage, but with especially how EDM shows shine under the same festival setups, there’s a glaring difference.

You may not have the dance moves of an R&B singer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t add a little spice to your step individually and to the stage behind you. This came to mind when Logic rocked the Perry’s Stage, one of the few rappers to do so this weekend. Perry’s is notable for being one of Lolla’s most visually engaging stages, possessing a lot of wide backdrops for lights and creative backgrounds.

Logic actually has a great stage presence already, compared to most other rappers at least. He can captivate an audience in 10 seconds with an a capella that contains roughly 300 words in that span. (I saw this again on Saturday.) That’s great. But I was hoping he would have more of a show going on behind him on those video boards or incorporating pyro or lasers if devoid of the darkness that helped sets like that of FKA or The Weeknd. Instead, the one unique addition to his set was the tellng of a story about how one of his songs was created. Interesting for sure, but the story dragged on for over a minute and a half and is better suited for an interview than a festival.

Not to pick on Logic, he just happened to be an example because of the stage he was on and I happened to see him. G-Eazy rocked a similar size stage — the Pepsi — and though I noticed he had some falling light in the photos, I was turned off by his stage presence at a Friday night afterparty at the Renaissance to not go out of my way Saturday night to see him close down there. For him, I noticed many of the same rapper moves with no added showmanship, aside from playing to the front row (that worked) and a notably awesome drummer. In contrast, singer Jidenna rocked the same intimate stage (at the Renaissance) 20 minutes before him, and played to the entire crowd even better and creating a more high-energy experience. (Sidebar: HXLT had a sweet DJ set at the Renaissance that night too. I talked with him at (spoiler alert!) Metallica that there’s new music coming from him tomorrow.)

Moving on, I won’t sit here and dissect everyone’s setlist. In fact, most times I don’t have a gripe about them and artists have a really good sense of what works when, to who, and what doesn’t. That comes with experience.

However, surprise guests. Is it that much of a surprise when you pull up the trending rapper from the festival’s hometown? In this case, Vic Mensa. He was a guest of G-Eazy and A$AP Rocky‘s to turn up with them respectively. By my gauge and a few others’ accounts, I gathered it fell flat and ultimately wasn’t as memorable as it may seem on paper. This was seen even more clearly when A$AP played his new Chief Keef collab that was too new (literally released that day, Saturday) that no one really knew it. It didn’t have the same pop in front of 80K people that I’m sure it did at the A$AP Mob concert at Reggie’s later that night when everyone there would have been more receptive.

I’ll close on perhaps the biggest lowlight: Travi$ Scott. I speak on this more as if you’re a fan of the G.O.O.D. artist because he arrived 30 minutes late, then got kicked out 10 minutes later after encouraging his fans to jump the barricade and ignore security. It’s humorous as a bystander who wasn’t there, but his arrest was lucky to be the worst that came out of it.

TL;DR: Let’s be more creative showmen/women, rappers! Also, be on time and actually perform, Travi$ Scott!

The legendary nostalgia is real.

2 of the headliners responsible for distincting Lolla 2015 from years past are Paul McCartney and Metallica.

Their hip hop crossover is limited at best, but these are two seldom touring legends that you just have to experience live when the chance presents itself. I’ll be telling my kids about them one day… and have already told my dad and brother, respectively, about each experience.

Paul McCartney was opposite The Weeknd on Friday night — in timing, distance, and just musically overall. The two stages they were on (Samsung and Bud Light) are the biggest of the fest, and the farthest walk between any two stages (probably 20 minutes with foot traffic.) I figured I’d catch the first part of Sir Paul’s set before they overlapped, and as I executed the plan, it didn’t take long to appreciate what we were all seeing.

The vibe was chill and must have been what a festival felt like in the 60’s. McCartney and his band played songs both instantly recognizable to even the most casual of Beatles fans and songs that go deep into his history. My hair-raising moment was singing along with the thousands to “Eleanor Rigby” (and reflecting on hearing this as a child with dad… as well as the fire Talib Kweli remix, ha!). It was also humorous to hear nearby standees disappointed that Rihanna or Kanye didn’t surprise appear for “FourFiveSeconds”.

What I appreciated the most live though was how Sir Paul literally switched instruments from song to song. Different types of guitar, to piano, to even the ukulele, amongst others. He performed in front of ever-changing backdrops too that looked impressive even from far away.

I got my McCartney fix and could have easily stayed for the entire set. The coolest part was probably telling my dad, with The Beatles being his favorite band, as he was pleasantly surprised I got to see one of his all-time favorites growing up.

***

As for Metallica, I walked up as they first provided the high-octane backdrop to the contrasting majestic sunset on Saturday night — the most beautiful one we saw all weekend.

My older brother, more of a rock fan than anything, got me into music before Maks G got me fully into hip hop. I was young still, but I gravitated to the classic Metallica self-titled album I heard between the walls growing up and soon had a copy myself — one of my first purchased albums, you know, after the Space Jam Soundtrack.

Anyway, Metallica holds a nostalgic place in my childhood bonding with the bro and it was amazing to hear the lengthy, seemingly impromptu solos throughout classics like “Wherever I May Roam” above. My bro texted back in response: “You have now officially gained my complete and utter respect.”

After our quick foray over to Sam Smith, I hustled back to the Samsung stage to catch the fitting “Enter Sandman” encore. I left Lolla that night with that same “I witnessed history” feeling that I had the night before. And I know I wasn’t the only one.

Lastly…

To wrap this up, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a couple more things.

For one, the perks of some of the after-parties and lounges. Srirachana and I had a great time at both the Samsung Owner’s Lounge in the festival, which featured an up close experience with A$AP Rocky, and the well-designed Dell Lounge where we learned how to DJ (link coming soon…)

Between the latter and the Friday night afterparty at the Renassance hotel though, I should note that these events aren’t for media only. You’ll be able to find a cool party, cool lounge, and/or cool venue for $FREE.99 — all you have to do is some research and type in an RSVP. This info is aimed for future festival goers: I would definitely look up 1 or 2 of these and add something new to your Lolla experience. Even to those in the Chicago music scene, there’s nothing this big in the industry the rest of the year so I always make it a point to enjoy the grand scale of the other events and afterparties.

The drawback is that it may take away from seeing all the artists you want to see, but I’ve grown to accept that I’ll miss out on some no matter what. (This year for me it was Raury, Lion Babe, Banks, and the hometown’s DJ Trentino. I heard great things about Raury’s set, who sounds like he accomplished the opposite of my critiques above aimed at hip hop performers.)

***

I saved probably my favorite story of them all for last: my first ever impromptu beach ball party at a festival! It made my experience feel most like a festival than perhaps anything else.

I was with a couple friends walking over to catch Sam Smith on Saturday night and we came across a family of 5 with 3 little kids playing with a beach ball. This quickly snowballed into a circle of 8, half kids, half adults just keeping the ball alive. In the background, we heard the impressive Sam Smith loud and clear, and it was the fitting sound for the happy go lucky time (his sad songs didn’t feel as sad, hah!)

This story proves though that you just can’t predict what spontaneous experiences you’ll undoubtedly have throughout Lollapalooza. That alone is one of the underrated parts that make a trip to the Chi worth your while, whether you’re fighting for tickets amongst your hometown friends or travelling from all across the country.

On that note, hope you enjoyed the read/scroll thru, thanks for getting this far and of course, see you next year! 🙂

For all of our Lollapalooza coverage, simply visit gowherehiphop.com/lollapalooza.