Austin City Limits 2016 Day 2 Highlights: Kendrick Lamar, Cage the Elephant, Melanie Martinez & More

Kendrick Lamar
C Flanigan/Getty Images

Kendrick Lamar performs during the 2016 Austin City Limits Music Festival at Zilker Park on Oct. 1, 2016 in Austin, Texas. 

It wasn’t that long ago that the Austin City Limits Music festival booked its first hip-hop headliner, Kanye West in 2011. So it was nothing short of a triumph that the fest snagged the most relevant hip-hop headliner -- Kendrick Lamar, arguably among the most important artistic voices of this era -- to cap Day 2 (Oct. 1) of the 15th anniversary’s first weekend.

Even more a testament to the festival’s finger-on-the-pulse mastery was a supremely smart scheduling -- a run of hits-packed hip-hop and popular dance music dominating two stages, Samsung and the smaller HomeAway, on one side of Zilker Park -- leading up to the Compton-bred rapper’s coup. A significant portion of the sold-out, 75,000-strong throng went from DJ Mustard, to LL Cool J featuring DJ Z-Trip, to AlunaGeorge, to Schoolboy Q, to the Chainsmokers and finally Kendrick.

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The effect was a continually crowded sector of the fest, the hype beginning to build about midday with Mustard’s pyro-packed “Get Low” rally, then never fully dissipating. No doubt some hoped the night’s headliner might make an early cameo with Black Hippy accomplice Schoolboy, but of course he abstained. Instead, Lamar spotlighted his former label mate early in his set by inviting him out to perform new single “THat Part,” which features Kanye on the recorded version.

Otherwise, it was a solid 90 minutes of front-and-center Kendrick, who commanded his legions of generations-spanning fans like some sort of ultra-positive hip-hop general, intermittently making increasingly emboldened statements, each one of them punctuated by barking, “Do you agree?!”

“Last time I came out here, we turned this shit up to a double digit, and every time I come back, we need to turn it up a notch -- do you agree?” he beckoned just past the midpoint of his set, which had already reigned in party-starters like “Backseat Freestyle,” “Swimming Pools,” “These Walls” and the raw, slam poetry-inspired To Pimp a Butterfly snippet “For Sale? (Interlude).”

If I ain’t tired, then you damn sure better not be ... we gonna do this shit for a very long time -- do you agree?!” he goaded. He barely waited a moment for the deafening affirmative before launching into the infectiously funky “King Kunta,” which was backdropped by footage of James Brown tending to a distressed group of Bostonians following Martin Luther King Jr.’s ’68 assassination, making it equally as poignant as the fire-soaked “Alright,” an anthem now essential to the Black Lives Matter movement.

While the visuals sometimes strayed into the realm of abstract, they were often overtly political, at one point positing Lamar as some sort of presidential hopeful, a giant U.S. flag and bald eagle filling the screen behind him while he fired off the mind-bending milieu of “For Free? (Interlude).” All of the visuals, whether live or historical footage, were projected in black and white, which, by way of their nostalgic texture, seemed to make a proclamation: this show, even as it’s unfolding, is already the stuff of legend, the greatest rap performance in ACL history -- also likely to claim top honors for the weekend -- just by positing itself as such.

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That said, those who gathered on the opposite side of the park for Cage the Elephant’s Honda main stage set a couple of hours earlier might’ve argued differently. The Kentucky-bred, Nashville-based sextet have come a long way since platinum single “Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked” exploded on the charts in 2008. Back then, that tune, “In One Ear” and “Back Against the Wall” helped them rile up crowds of a few hundred. Now, the way they inspire tens of thousands to scream and mosh as if possessed, those songs resound like hits destined for the “classic rock” canon. That thrust is provided largely by brothers Matt (frontman) and Brad (guitarist) Shultz, who imbued newer tracks “Mess Around” and “Punchin’ Bag” with similar manic magic by non-stop launching themselves into the surging masses.

Before that, rising singer-songwriter Melanie Martinez likewise garnered a sizable audience, albeit with a much more chill demeanor. Playing the part of birthday girl toddler in her oversized playroom -- complete with giant blocks, caricatured crib and mobile, and massive birthday cake flanks -- The Voice reject exuded a natural penchant for powerful live performance while slingin’ plenty of sass: songs from her debut album, Cry Baby, played in its entirety, showed her channeling smoothness similar to other contemporary chanteuses (Lana Del Rey, Banks, Lorde) with a signature rasp that lent genuine she-gangsta attitude to bountiful F-bombs.

Other standouts of Day 2: Andrew Bird, who explored bluesier, less esoteric territory with cuts aplenty from latest album, Are You Serious?; Saint Motel, whose far-reaching closing dance party proved that “My Type” is still one of the most uncannily catchy indie rock singles of the last couple years; and Gallant, whose fairytale-perfect falsetto -- paired with a heavily Prince-influenced musicianship and constantly impassioned flailing/twirling from the 24-year-old R&B singer -- deserved a much higher billing.


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