Miami’s Best of the Best concert is one of the most prominent annual showcases for dancehall reggae in the U.S., attracting upwards of 10,000 spectators to the city’s downtown on the Sunday before Memorial Day. While the event has taken on more of a hip-hop flavor in recent editions, with rap stars flocking to Miami during what's known as Urban Beach Week, it’s still a largely Caribbean audience that Best of the Best performers must ultimately appeal to, and dancehall still rules the day. So while the biggest draws on this year’s Best of the Best bill might appear to be rappers 2 Chainz, Meek Mill, Fat Joe, Fabolous and French Montana, the prime time slots went to Jamaican stars I-Octane and Mavado.
The show began rather inauspiciously with a last-minute venue change, from Bicentennial Park to nearby Bayfront Park, followed by three hours of performances from local acts few audience members recognized. Things only got somewhat more familiar when Laza Morgan, a young singer known primarily for the recent pop reggae track "One by One," took the stage – then left after performing just a few bars of his lone hit. (He’d re-emerge later in the evening to perform it with his collaborator on the song, Mavado.)
That left a pair of veteran artists, former Bob Marley backup singer Marcia Griffiths and X-rated dancehall godfather Admiral Bailey, to rev up a crowd mostly too young to remember even their most recent hits. But with an assist from enthusiastic hosts Walshy Fire and Jamusa (who introduced Bailey as "the man who taught us the word punany,") Griffiths and Bailey did just that. Looking regal in a pink caftan, Griffiths closed out a set with a song few probably realize is hers: "Electric Boogie," a.k.a. "the Electric Slide Song." Yep, that staple of African-American BBQs, wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs is actually a Jamaican production.
Rising Miami rapper Brianna Perry kicked off the festival’s hip-hop segment with her homegrown hit "Marilyn Monroe." While her attire – heels so cumbersome they looked like ice skates, and a tennis skirt so short the slightest movement left her behind exposed – restricted her to almost robotic movements, a coterie of full-figured dancers in workout gear took up the slack.
Perry was followed by enthusiastic performances from Ace Hood and 2 Chainz, two rappers who make up in presence and confidence what they lack in obvious skill. Then Fat Joe, French Montana, Meek Mill and Fabolous took turns in a quickly-rotating set. As Montana performed his verse from Rick Ross’ "Stay Schemin,'" perhaps the most ubiquitous rap song in Miami at the moment, one couldn’t help but notice the absence of the city’s biggest rap star.
Ross’ rising Maybach Music Group protégé Meek Mill was an appropriate consolation though, taking the energy in Bayfront Park to peak levels with club/street anthems "I’m A Boss" and "House Party." Though the crowd roared in approval at Mill’s enthusiasm, his voice wasn’t up to the task, reverting to a shout-y delivery that made songs like "Amen" only partly recognizable.
Backed by a succession of live bands, reggae artists Shaggy, Christopher Martin, Demarco, Serani and I-Octane offered a more polished alternative to their hip-hop counterparts. Shaggy in particular showed why he’s still a major live draw, offering fresh spins on hits like "Boombastic," which his band performed as a reggae version of Marvin Gaye’s "Let’s Get it On."
Serani, a producer-turned-artist best known for the 2008 single "No Games," offered perhaps the night’s most entertaining performance. After beginning his set seated at a keyboard, he stood up in the middle of "She Loves Me," and tore off his belt amid a series of pelvic thrusts, shouting, "Ladies you want some of this?" Bald and diminutive, he makes for an unlikely sex symbol – but hey, he owned it.
Mavado, newly signed to Miami rap magnate DJ Khaled’s We the Best imprint, was afforded the night’s longest time slot, running through a deep well of dancehall hits including "Last Night," "Star Bwoy," "Weh Dem Ah Do" and "Delilah," and bringing out his benefactor Khaled for a brief speech.
While Diddy and Jadakiss were added to the program as last minute headliners, they were nowhere to be found, leaving highly underrated dancehall singer Mr. Vegas with the unenviable task of closing out the show just minutes before the required midnight cutoff. While that didn’t leave Vegas with much time to acquit himself, he managed to fire off a pair of hits in "I Am Blessed" and "Tek Weh Yuhself" before his mic was cut, leaving his backing band, Ruff Kut, to offer the evening’s last gasp.