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Review and photos: Soundset 2016 showcases hip-hop’s great range

by Cecilia Johnson

May 30, 2016

On stage at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds at Soundset 2016, Sway Calloway shared some words on hip-hop culture: “It’s multifaceted and multidimensional.” The Sway in the Morning host was introducing legendary hip-hop crew (and Jimmy Fallon house band) the Roots, who proved his point in one neo-soul-to-swing-to-beatboxing set. But all day long, Soundset brought together disparate artists and subgenres of hip-hop; the festival showed how varied and vibrant the culture really is.

Where else, after all, can you hear Travis Scott’s “Antidote,” Janelle Monáe’s “Yoga,” and Q-Tip’s “Vivrant Thing” played by different DJs (Tiiiiiiiiiip, Shannon Blowtorch, and Just Nine, respectively) in the same hour? Where else can you find Common, Lizzo, and A$AP Rocky on the same bill?

Los Angeles’s Reverie was a great choice to open the Fifth Element Stage after DJ Just Nine wrapped up his set. Smart, fast, and lyrical, she started conversations in the crowd; for her last song, the Woolgathering rapper gave the audience a choice between an “autobiographic, poetic” tune or “trap s— we can turn up to." Although the latter won out, Reverie mentioned that she identifies more with the former.


Lexii Alijai certainly seems to identify with more confessional rap, too; her music told stories about her family, relationships, and dreams. Fans chanted her name before she took the stage, and they kept up with Alijai throughout her set.


Finding Novyon, Danny Brown, and Future all got crowds jumping with heavy beats and intense stage presences. In the small-but-intense Fifth Element tent, Novyon performed “No Xans,” “Let’s Get Lit,” and “Lots” (featuring an in-person guest verse from Allan Kingdom). Hours later, Brown got the crowd so animated it looked like everyone on the main stages jumped along. Co-headliner Future flitted from trap song to song on the other side of the main stage, and he ended with a plug for his Summer Sixteen Tour with Drake, which stops at the Xcel on July 24.


Old-school artists Common, Atmosphere, and the Roots were more mellow than their bookending acts, giving festivalgoers a chance to slow down and meditate on the powerful hip-hop tradition. Each of those three related to their audience through conversation, but I saw the most powerful connection in fans’ eyes as they sang well-loved lyrics and lifted their hands. Highlights: Common nailed a freestyle that mentioned the Twins and the Roots; Slug (of Atmosphere) announced a new album that’ll drop on July 29; Damon Bryson (“Tuba Gooding, Jr.”) of the Roots smashed my expectations of what a sousaphone could do, jamming and even jumping with his instrument.


Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals are one of the buzziest hip-hop bands in the country, and their time at Soundset showed why. It's easy to compare .Paak and his band with the Roots, but .Paak really does seem to continue the Roots's legacy, displaying excellent musicianship while drumming and rapping. He performed songs like "The Season / Carry Me" and "Come Down" with all the energy he had. The only time .Paak broke stride? When his band members jokingly sabotaged his conversation breaks by playing music over him. Never has the "Thousand Miles" piano riff been used to such devilish success.


Local musicians made Minnesota proud on Sunday. In the Fifth Element tent, Baby Shel and DJ Quincy James powered through a great set (with guest appearances from J. Plaza, Metasota, and Mike the Martyr), and I Self Devine and Muja Messiah enchanted their audience with songs from their joint 9th House LP. Lizzo gained lots of new fans on the main stage, dancing with her fabulous Big Grrrls and playing two new songs (one asked, “Where the hell my phone?” over a Major Lazer/"Run The World (Girls)"-esque beat, and another celebrated Lizzo’s “whole squad of ladies”).


Closing out the Fifth Element Stage, Doomtree played an hour-long set of No Kings songs (“Bolt Cutter” turned into an a capella, clap-along incantation), All Hands bangers (“.38 Airweight” and “Final Boss” killed), P.O.S favorites (the crowd knew nearly all the words to “Low Light Low Life” and “Get Down”), and even a new song (“We tried it once in Denver last weekend,” Sims said, before starting up his verse. “This one’s for you/ What more can I do,” goes the hook. The False Hopes-harkening song features Sims, Cecil Otter, and P.O.S on bars).


A$AP Rocky played the last set of the day as almost 30,000 people gathered around the main stage, all anxious to hear one of New York’s finest. The A$AP Mob member’s stage show was the day’s most thrilling, featuring paper bills, confetti, and plumes of smoke shot into the air. The rapper also used the whole stage while performing songs such as “Yamborghini High” and “F—in’ Problems.” Between his own music, he danced to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” saying, “Make some noise for Kurt!”


With all that variety packed into one festival, overstimulation did make appearances, but the quieter areas and shaded spots offered respite. Water could’ve been easier to find, but the food selection almost made up for that — Sweet Martha’s cookies and ice-cold milk are basically beyond compare. If anyone needed an activity break from the non-stop music, the Classic Car Show and Familia Skateboard Showdown presented good options.

When he talked about hip-hop, Sway was right; it's multifaceted, and so was Soundset 2016. But throughout the festival, one thing bonded everyone together: love for Prince. DJ Tiiiiiiiiiip wore a custom-printed Prince outfit; Common shouted out the Purple One during a freestyle; the Roots played a production set of Prince remixes, mostly riffing on Purple Rain favorites like “Take Me With U” and “Let’s Go Crazy.” Even on a day with such incredible range — from trap stars to supergroups to local hip-hop heroes — a purple thread bound us all together.


Emmet Kowler recently graduated from the University of Minnesota, Morris with a degree in theatre arts. His favorite things include West Side Story, "Bolt Cutter," and breakfast food.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.