Simply put, the Beatmaster comes to Bonnaroo for rhythms and rhymes. This year they won't leave unsatisfied. Bonnaroo 2011 boasts a full roster of artists dedicated to delivering either nimble rhymes or powerhouse rhythms – occasionally at the same time.
The Knux, Thursday, 7 p.m., This Tent
If you've never been lucky enough to witness a set by the Louisiana hip-hop duo The Knux, here's what you're in for: mile-a-minute rhyming coming fast-and-furious over beats that borrow as much from rock music as R&B. There's an energy and intensity to their set that, at times, recalls vintage Public Enemy (their "F!IRE" is like a laid-back take on "Fight the Power.") They're just as energizing when being playful. "Bang! Bang!" is all spry bounce and playful rhymes, rubberband hip-hop bound to keep a crowd in motion.
J. Cole, Thursday, 8:30 p.m., This Tent
J. Cole has only been making music for four years, but he's already racked up an impressive pedigree. His debut mixtape The Come Up, which pits Cole's lean voice against thumping, soul-inspired production, attracted the attention of none other than Jay-Z, who signed the rapper to his Roc Nation label and invited him to contribute a verse to "A Star is Born" on Blueprint III. Since then, Cole's star has been on the ascent, remixing Rihanna's "S&M" and scoring appearances from Drake and Wale on his Friday Night Lights mixtape. This festival appearance may be your last chance to see Cole on a small stage – by this time next year, he'll be commanding quite a crowd.
Atmosphere, Friday, 5 p.m., This Tent
One of the leading lights of indie rap, Atmosphere – a.k.a. rapper Slug and DJ Ant – offer a live show closer to rock than hip-hop. Backed by a lean but toothy band, Atmosphere is rightly revered as one of the more ruthless acts in underground rap. Their latest effort, The Family Sign, may find them developing a level of comfort with domesticity (it's certainly more relaxed than earlier efforts) but make no mistake: these songs scale upward, and in the hot Tennessee sun, Atmosphere's performance will seem that much more vital.
Big Boi, Friday 12:45 a.m., Other Tent
When OutKast released their double-album masterpiece Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, critical attention was so lopsided toward Andre 3000's contributions that you'd be forgiven for not realizing the package came with a second disc. Time does funny things, though: eight years later, it's Big Boi's half that seems the more forward-thinking and tenacious of the two, and his jaw-dropping abilities were reaffirmed last year with his spectacular, if ridiculously named, solo record Sir Luscious Left Foot…the Son of Chico Dusty. Part Southern funk bounce, part club-thumping hip-hop, Big Boi's mile-a-minute rapping and sly knack for a subtle hooks ensure this late Friday set will be a party from the first beat.
Lil Wayne, Friday, 1:30 a.m., Which Stage
It's hard to imagine anyone thinking twice about catching this set, but in case you're still inexplicably on the fence: Lil Wayne is charisma embodied, a froggy-throated, pocket-sized dynamo who punches and lunges and leaps his way through his performances. He's also got a back catalog that defies categorization and enough hits to ensure this mainstage set will be a high-octane crowdpleaser.
Ratatat, Friday, 2:30 a.m., Other Tent
Electronic duo Ratatat sound like a dismantled Nintendo, stray squawks and bleeps and synth whooshes racing across the center of their jittery songs. Live, they play in front of a series of strange, 8-bit projections and draw out more fully the guitar lines that dance around the edges of their songs – mad scientist laboratory music built on the fly that's specifically engineered to move bodies.
Dennis Coffey, Saturday, 1:35 p.m., What Stage
Legendary Motown guitarist Dennis Coffey returned this year with a record that spoke to his R&B bona fides, boasting guest appearances from young admirers like Mayer Hawthorne and Lisa Kekaula of the Bell Rays. And is it any wonder? Coffey provided the scorching guitar on R&B classics like "Ball of Confusion" and "It's Your Thing," and while he's still unjustly undersung, he's still the kind of musician and bandleader who seems born to be in front of an audience.
Black Uhuru, Saturday, 3:35 p.m., What Stage
For some loose and limber Saturday afternoon grooves, look no further than reggae legends Black Uhuru who, over the years, have counted everyone from Junior Reid to Keith Richards among their admirers. Their catalog is loaded with songs that place a high premium on both social consciousness and light, laconic melodies. Though only Derrick "Duckie" Simpson remains of the group's original lineup, that doesn't rob the songs of any of their warmth or beauty. In late afternoon in Tennessee, their gentle skank and smooth choruses will comfort like a cool breeze.
!!!, Saturday 7 p.m., This Tent
Massive outdoor festivals are the kind of thing !!! was invented to play. Their shows are nonstop motion machines, driven by throbbing bass and vocalist Nic Offer's terrific, hiccupping delivery. Imagine Talking Heads played at twice the normal speed and you're getting close. By this point, the group are festival pros, and their ability to command a crowd is uncontested. They're the perfect way to rev up for a long Saturday night.
Eminem, Saturday, 11 p.m., What Stage
It was looking bleak for Eminem for a second. The back-to-back duds that were Encore and Relapse were quickly eclipsed by his personal problems, and it soon seemed like hip-hop's resident firebrand was in desperate danger of losing the plot. So it was that much more heartening to see him spring back with a vengeance, unleashing the cathartic, chart-topping Recovery, kicking drugs once and for all and delivering the kind of white-hot, thrilling live shows normally expected of artists who have been around twice as long. His double bill at Yankee Stadium with Jay-Z proved Em has what it takes to be a marquee headliner. Expect this mainstage show to be one people talk about for days after.
Omar Souleyman, Saturday, 12:30 a.m., Other Tent
Omar Souleyman is a star in his home country of Syria, and over the course of the past year his profile in the States has been growing slowly. Though he's typically referred to as the "Inventor of Syrian Techno," Souleyman's music is richer and weirder than that. He blends elements of traditional Middle Eastern music with hurtling dance rhythms and tops them with his meandering, chant-like delivery. What results is one of the most unique and invigorating dance parties around – a one-of-a-kind experience that is not to be missed.
Girl Talk, Saturday, 2:30 a.m., This Tent
The music Gregg Gillis makes as Girl Talk is perfectly suited to an age when genre snobbery has all but melted away. Expect to hear Biggie verses dropped over Arctic Monkeys instrumentals and Neutral Milk Hotel giving way to TLC. Also expect to dance your way into exhaustion – the ideal ending to your Saturday.
Robyn, Sunday, 4:30 p.m., Other Tent
Swedish singer Robyn may be diminutive and pixielike, but don't be fooled – there's snarl in those songs. After a one-off late Nineties dance hit "Show Me Love," Robyn retooled, writing songs that put the focus on her tough, indomitable personality. Last year's Body Talk set her off-kilter alto against shimmering electropop production, producing anthems of both vulnerability ("Dancing on My Own") and strength ("Indestructible"). She ramps all of these up to gale force live, a non-stop blonde blur whose charisma and spark earn her new fans with each live show.