By Andre Grant
Here’s the thing: I come off as a laid back person but anxiety is always creeping slowly up my neck. A $26 dollar, one-way Uber from East LA to Inglewood left almost naked my already squalid bank account, and I walked up to The Forum, it looking like a milky, ambient light tinged marshmallow kneeling on the grounds. It was a reunion of sorts. We’d been covering rap for what seemed like forever now, all of us, smiling and slightly shivering in L.A.’s version of winter. Daps for the ones you know, preemptive side-eyes for folks you’ve never met and, wristband cutting into my skin, I slink down into the bowels of the marshmallow, a security guard staring out into the parking lot with a scowl. I imagine he’s thinking about his life and how he got here. But here we all are.
Predictably, the crowd is hype, mostly wavy California girls wearing velvety chokers, their makeup done with a dewy glow like the pics of the beautiful ones you see on Tumblr or Instagram. I can’t help but wonder why the choker has made a return. It once symbolized 90’s-era grunge, but also danger and ownership. Now it evokes a monstrous romance belied by fierce femininity. Manet’s prostitute in his famous “Olympia” donned a choker to announce herself as a woman of the night. Degas’ ballerinas wore them, too. Of course, my ancestors wore elaborate neck arrangements for other reasons: So that enemies would have a harder time slitting their throats.
Each performer at this year’s mega show is a social media case study. MadeinTYO’s “Uber Everywhere” peaked at 51 on the Billboard top 100, his Twitter followers hover at around 130,000, but the video for “Uber Everywhere” is at 47,000,000 views on YouTube and counting. People care about him in a major way. I’ve heard the song what seems like millions of times but I can’t rap a single word. And maybe that’s why he had the track playing in the background during his set, which was a distraction.
His stage presence is palpable, even as other stars would bring out more stars later on. I say "other" and not "bigger" because I’m not sure what the threshold for being a big star is in 2016. Lil Yachty is huge, but not more ubiquitous than MadeinTYO. Ice Cube is a legend, but ask any fourteen year old if they’ve listened to Death Certificate recently and, unless they’re massively cool, the answer is no. Instead, they might say they just finished listening to Amine’s “Caroline,” who also jumped out on stage. He played his 47,000,000-view video behind him. One or two more might do some good.
The crowd hums as D.R.A.M and Yachty play “Broccoli,” their number 5 Billboard 100 hit and the unofficial song of the year. It’s been everywhere, bolstered by a late push on streaming platforms like Spotify and Pandora. Lil Yachty feels almost chosen. Handpicked by darling press outlets because of his unique understanding of youth and internet culture. His voice crackles and pops like a children’s show character. His red hair beads bob silently. D.R.A.M’s smile is infectious, and combined with Yachty’s constant state of whimsy, the song bubbles off the walls at The Forum, foaming up into a good-ass-mood.
Arguably, the set of the night came from Anderson .Paak. He furiously played drums, his long multi-colored patchwork jacket swooped with him on tracks off his critical hit record Malibu. His 90s era circle shades—the default look of the artsiest of the artsy—sat perched on his button nose as he swung through his catalog. Unfortunately, the “Cali Christmas” audience wasn’t his. Even after he brought out his ski-masked son to pop-and-lock for a second there at the end.
2 Chainz ran through a medley of his guest verses, leading me to realize Chainz has managed to line with diamonds a career predicated by funny, outlandish guest offerings. The man is a blessing. “Birthday Song” lifts the arena to its feet. Those same wavy Tumblr girls, now with about 32 to 64 ounces of liquor in them twerk relentlessly. Then, at the end, they drunkenly mouthed, “You win first place.” The rapper who could play point guard for the Hawks brought out O.T. Genasis for a turn at another one of his operatic-trap numbers. “Cut It” is so weird to see live, as though Genasis would have one side of his face obscured by a mask instead of wearing jeans and timbs.
Ice Cube anchored the show. He was the one IRL-only megastar on the ticket and I’m grateful he wasn’t stolen from us this year the way Prince and Bowie were. He’s joined on stage by WC for “Bow Down,” and seeing him C-walk across the stage reminds me that he’s been relevant since at least the late 80s. His pitch is perfect. He snarls into his verses the way moto-racers lean into turns. Breath control—the thing artists tend to ignore—made his performance seem taut and seamless. His list of hits are too many to name. “A Good Day” lit my section of the arena on fire. And his flawless performance brought to a close a show that I hope caps all the weirdness of 2016.
On stage, back-to-back, we saw internet stars, independent artists who tour like crazy, .Paak’s dash of 70s soul, a rap legend, and the most improbable comeback story in rap history in 2 Chainz. Not bad.