It took them nearly five years to get here, but at long last Rolling Loud has pulled up in New York. And it wasn’t without its drama.
To be fair, when the hip-hop cavalcade of stars began in 2015 as a one-day showcase for next-gen rap, it only made sense that its origin was in Miami, ground zero for the Soundcloud rap explosion of the mid-2010s. Within two years, RL founders Matt Zingler and Tariq Cherif had added Los Angeles and Bay Area editions. The festival had grown exponentially in size, star power and ticket price, and had clearly picked up the baton once held by Rock the Bells as the world’s preeminent live hip-hop brand.
This year, they’re going international: next weekend they’ll be in Hong Kong, but maybe most significantly to the culture, this weekend, this most millennial of hip-hop meccas is staging its inaugural edition in the birthplace of the music.
The location is not rap’s cradle of the Bronx, but close enough: the complex at Citi Field in Queens is home of the New York Mets as well as the location of 2016’s short-lived the Meadows festival, which itself sported a healthy hip-hop representation, but nothing like Rolling Loud. Over two days, a ridiculously packed lineup approaching 100 artists that spans sounds and generations with the most melodic of hooks to the grittiest of bars makes a point of including many talents from our hometown of Gotham.
Still, Rolling Loud always manages to deliver last-minute headlines. Early Saturday (Oct. 12) it was announced that the ragged, versatile young Trippie Redd was off the bill due to illness. Then came confirmation of a story that had broken hours earlier that no less than five artists — 22Gz, Casanova, Don Q, Sheff G, and the white-hot Pop Smoke — had been dropped by the festival over safety concerns expressed in a letter to Rolling Loud by the NYPD. It was a development that left more than a few disappointed (and probably should have been addressed by the authorities sooner).
On the other hand, two even bigger names stepped into the lineup — more on them later — and an incredible weekend was underway. Our highlights from Day One.
New York’s Young Guns
Even if Canarsie’s drill sergeant Pop Smoke couldn’t make it, there was no shortage of exciting young New Yorkers on display, on a day that went from cool and overcast to — just as the gates opened at noon — warm and bright sunshine. There was no better place to experience them, one after another, than at the streets-oriented Sauce stage. Brooklyn teen Jay Gwaupo took that crowd up a few notches when the dynamo delivered his started-from-the-bottom bangers “Lifestyle” and “From Nothing.” The Bronx’s Kemba drove it darker and grimier, offering a call-and-response “No You Ain’t.” It was back to Brooklyn for ABG Neal, the affable Cuban-American, as funny as he is raw, from “Popped & Panicking” to “Forrest Gump”’s “When I fuck you, don’t pull on my braids.” And then, on the main stage was a leading contender for hip-hop heartthrob du jour, Lil Tjay, who sat periodically on a throne, and whose set included songs that blew him up in the past year, “Brothers” and “Goat”, as well as and “Pop Out”, his mega-collab with Polo G, and tracks from his newly release LP True 2 Myself including the affecting “Hold On.”
Rico Rules the Afternoon
There’s always that moment in any festival day when things turn up a level, and on Saturday’s main Fashion Nova stage it was with the repetitive strains of “Ri-Ri-Ri-Rico,” heralding the arrival of one of the most charismatic and underappreciated artists in the game, Rico Nasty. It’s a giant stage, and Maria Cecilia Kelly commanded it, swagging at times, prowling at others, showing compassion for a fan down front who was hurting and spitting one take-no-prisoners jam after another, from “Guap La La” to “Tia Tamera,” her feature with Doja Cat, to the signature “Smack a Bitch.” Her appeal is wide, but there’s no denying that women in the crowd in particular connected. Singing along is one thing, and doing it with a sense of empowerment is another.
Fetty and Pump Save the Day
If you’ve got to fill some slots at the last minute, how about doing so with two certifiable stars with outsize personalities? “Trap Queen” king Fetty Wap, a New Jersey native — “don’t call him a New Yorker!” advised a fan who saw me taking notes — thrilled an afternoon crowd. And who better to match a sunset than the clown prince of Gen Z hip-hop, Lil Pump, who you’d never know was a last-minute addition. Pump always brings color, and on this evening it was an orange vest bright enough to work in the subway, green hair and non-stop cartoons on the big screen, set to those mind-numbing earworms “D Rose,” “Flex Like Ouu,” “Molly” and “Boss.” “Esskeetit” brought with it pyro, and finally after repeatedly exhorting the crowd to “open this bitch up” that old chestnut “Gucci Gang” delivered its usual bouncing, unadulterated fun.
Young M.A: Herstory Adds Another Chapter
One of the grittiest, realest and most gifted talents in the game, Young M.A is a New York treasure who’s taken her time while remaining fiercely independent. Saturday night, she demonstrated the skills that have earned her across-the-board respect. There was “BIG,” the rollicking, boastful track that’s threatened to supplant her monster “OOOUUU” as her signature — they even handed out cardboard cutout’s of the single’s “Big Drip” cartoon artwork. There were tastes of her recent debut LP Herstory In the Making which includes standouts “No Mercy,” “Smoove Kriminal” and “No Love,” and for crowd pleaser “Petty Wap,” she brought up ladies from the crowd who had their twerking skills down.
“I let the bros pick em,” she told Billboard after the show. “I can’t do it. I got to perform, but at the end of the day, if you ain’t coming up here to twerk, you got to get off the stage.”
Even Without Their Leader, Wu-Tang Is Still Nuthin To Fuck With
Of all the New York legacy artists Rolling Loud included this weekend — Fat Joe, Jim Jones, and DMX among them — none commands more respect than the masters of Shaolin, Wu-Tang Clan. Their appearance at Citi Field came as part of a trek marking the 25th anniversary of Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers, and being part of Rolling Loud in their hometown was special.
“That’s official, you know?” said Raekwon, when Billboard met with some of the crew before the set. “It’s not just hip-hop being in one box of R&B, or what I call a lot of fun-time music. You get to dive into a world of educated artists, whether they’re old school, new school, this is the time for it.”
Dive they did, into much of 36 Chambers, but they did it without their founder and guru, RZA. Method Man explained on stage that Wu #1 was AWOL because he missed a flight, but in the true mark of icons, they powered through essentials like “Wu Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthin to Fuck With” and “Protect Ya Neck” as well as Method Man’s eponymous jam and the late Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” by none other than his son Barsun Jones, aka Young Dirty Bastard.
“If it wasn’t for these brothers, man, we wouldn’t keep alive the legend of ODB,” he told Billboard of his father, who passed away 15 years ago next month. “I just keep pushing. I got babies and they got babies. Wu-Tang is for the chlldren.” Wu-Tang’s play off music? The Al Green classic “Let’s Stay Together.” The saga continues.
Highest In The Room, and Top of the Bill:
My sense was that maybe half of the estimated 60,000 on hand for Rolling Loud New York’s first day were mainly and most importantly there to see the Travis Scott, who is every inch the picture of a superstar. If Wu’s set was classic, this was futurist, starting with the gargantuan stage, a matrix of lights, an LED chandelier in the center and images of carousels and butterflies, all to showcase mostly songs from Trav’s magnum opus (so far) Astroworld. Opening with “Stargazing” and continuing through “No Bystanders,” “Wake Up” and of course the ubiquitous “Sicko Mode,” it was an assault on the senses in the best way and the reception was rapturous — and he performed all while possibly suffering a significant injury. After a bad landing during “Butterfly Effect,” Scott hurt his knee, apparently seriously: “I think I broke my knee just now,” he said. But he soldiered on into the New York premiere of reflective new single “Highest In the Room,” which received its live debut at Rolling Loud Miami in May.
A final note: set scheduling conflicts at festivals may be inevitable, but Scott’s set coincided precisely with that of Philly’s finest, Meek Mill, at the other end of the complex — an especially painful choice for many fans.
Who’s on tap for Sunday (Oct. 13)? Only some of the hottest names in the game, like DaBaby, A Boogie, Juice WRLD, Lil Tecca and Megan Thee Stallion, along with A-listers Lil Uzi Vert, Machine Gun Kelly, DMX, and an ASAP Rocky homecoming.