Nicki Minaj had big plans for Hot 97's Summer Jam. Mere hours before she was slated to headline the show at New Jersey's MetLife Stadium stage on Sunday – for a hometown crowd of 80,000 – she tweeted in excitement, "History will be made @ Hot 97 Summer Jam tonight. I really hope you're there to witness it." That was before Lil Wayne pulled his Young Money star off the bill, before the night was thrown into a shredder, lit on fire, and then reconstructed with spit and tape into something so much better than initially conceived. It was before Nas and Lauryn Hill stepped onstage, unrehearsed, in a twist that was both unimaginable and perfect. History was indeed made last night – and somehow, amazingly, ironically, Minaj was the one who missed it.
Hot 97 DJ Peter Rosenberg has a reputation for being a bomb-thrower with a bald head and a smirk; he's a worshipper of old-school hip-hop authenticity at a time when Minaj's Young Money mate, Tyga, is all over his employer's airwaves with the strip-club smash, "Rack City." At around 3 p.m. on Sunday, while introducing Kendrick Lamar on the pre-show stage, Rosenberg hit his usual talking points: "I know there are some chicks here waiting to sing [Nicki Minaj's] 'Starships' later. I'm not talking to y'all right now. Fuck that bullshit. Bullshit! I'm here to talk about real hip-hop shit." It was a more colorful version of a point that Rosenberg has made on the radio before: an audio clip from February in which he calls Minaj a sellout has over 90,000 views on YouTube. At the time Nicki seemed non-plussed, saying that her genre-hopping was a strategic balancing act. This go-round, however, she felt too disrespected to appear at the station's marquee annual event. Or maybe it was Lil Wayne who was stung. Soon after Rosenberg made his comments, Wayne tweeted, "Young Money ain't doing summer jam." (And yet, minutes later, Tyga was onstage, humping the air.)
At an event where cameos matter most, Minaj had planned to bring out an impressive cavalcade of stars: Cam'ron, 2 Chainz, Nas, Lauryn Hill, Beenie Man, Foxy Brown, and much of YMCMB (a roster that seemingly expands by the minute) were all going to be onstage with her. Instead, she went to the club. Her sudden absence left a gaping hole in the lineup and an eeriness in the air. Every backstage development was suddenly more important than the actual show, while the performances acted as background noise, a distraction to all that was really going on. Ma$e and Diddy were spotted backstage – Would they be filling in? insiders whispered. Or would Hot 97 just add 10 minutes to every remaining act's set? Funkmaster Flex growled from the DJ booth, "We don't give a shit if you commercial or pop and you afraid to touch down in Jersey." (Also, curiously, "I'm gonna ruin your career.") The arena was filled with girls dressed like Minaj – neon hair with bangs, horse-hoof shoes and half-zipped cat-suits – who stuck around, either disbelieving or not caring.
It was both a surprise and completely appropriate when Nas took over as the de facto headliner. The veteran rapper is currently going through a career resurgence, and his upcoming Life Is Good album is a return to form. A few months ago, Hot 97's morning show (where Rosenberg is a co-host) started a campaign on Twitter to have him headline Summer Jam, a slot that Nas himself withdrew from in 2002 after the radio station wouldn't allow him to "lynch" an effigy of Jay-Z onstage. Nas was scheduled to appear this year, but Minaj has originally demanded that he perform during her own set. So when radio personalities Angie Martinez and Miss Info announced the "New York legend" in Minaj's absence, the crowd went wild. He seemed incredibly energized, perhaps by the spontaneity of the moment, and it was a welcome change for a performer that's usually so plodding. Nas ran through "Made You Look" and "Hate Me Now," hits that thundered through all levels of the stadium. He was a suitable replacement, a lifejacket in a dire situation. His appearance on such short notice would've been fine enough to save the night.
And then, Lauryn Hill walked onstage to the murky sounds of the Fugees' "Ready or Not." Clearly the "not" in the equation, the girl sitting next to this writer began to cry, her entire body shaking to keep up with her hands. Hill, who performed a New York comeback show of her own the night prior, did "Lost Ones" as she'd originally recorded it, her raps delivered with bite and confidence. Nas, who hadn't left the stage, joined in for "If I Ruled the World," a sing-along for the masses. Her eyes looked wide, her lashes big. Her appearance was perfect in its imperfections: she didn't hit all of the right notes, but she did hit the sweet spots. At approximately the same time, Nicki Minaj tweeted a picture of herself groping Foxy Brown's chest.
Much of the rest of the night (and day) paled in comparison. Young Jeezy seemed like a different person, skipping across the stage with a smile on his face. Every song choice of his was better than the last, but his set was too short, even though it was the longest. Big Sean brought out "the person who believed in me when no one else did" – this turned out to be mother, though the crowd seemed to expect Kanye West. (His mother, unfortunately, didn't stick around to perform Kanye's verse on "Marvin Gaye & Chardonnay.") Ma$e made a huge entrance during French Montana's set, but for some reason performed the very sub-par and very messy "Slight Work (Remix)," which seemed like a missed opportunity for everyone involved. Waka Flocka Flame drove his body into the crowd, forgetting to rap for most of his set. And Rick Ross' Maybach Music Group crew grunted and yell-rapped their way through all of their hits.
It was a night of seamless, if surprising, transitions, unexpected departures and other-worldly guest spots. Every year, as Summer Jam's gates open, the weather forecast famously threatens thunderstorms. This time, except for a few moments of downpour, disaster miraculously held off.