A decade ago, when 50 Cent performed at his hometown stadium party, Hot 97’s Summer Jam, chaos ensued when audience members threw chairs at him during a G-Unit performance. 50 threw them back. At the time, his compatriot Tony Yayo told the audience, “Something always happens when the G-Unit is around,” but after a mic drop and several pranks mocking the likes of R. Kelly and Ja Rule, 50 has been banned from the Summer Jam stage since 2004.
That backstory — coupled with a surprise G-Unit reunion (though Olivia was nowhere to be seen) — made last night’s triumphant return to Metlife Stadium the most notable event at one of the most exciting Summer Jams in years. After being introduced, with a hug, by former rival Nas, the crew piled onstage 30 or 40 deep, and when 50’s 2007 smash “I Get Money” kicked in with the refrain “I run New York,” it felt like this could even be true. And when he brought out Fabolous for a remix of the Brooklyn rapper’s too-many-girlfriends single “Cuffin’ Season”? It was complete chaos, fans in the stands jumping on their seats, standing on rails, losing their minds for the possibility of old New York becoming new again.
Summer Jam, now in its 21st year, is as notable for its labyrinthine backstory, beefs and drama as its legendary performances, always peppered with surprise guests. Fabled rap rivalries have begun here — most notably, the 2001 feud between Jay Z and Nas — and last night’s G-Unit performance even included an onstage fight, 50 Cent flashing his brilliant cat-ate-canary grin the whole way through. But hip-hop — and New York — have changed, and this year’s Summer Jam was a strange collision of the past and the future, moments of deep nostalgia interrupted spanking-new rappers who represent a swiftly changing hip-hop culture: The eccentric Atlanta rapper Young Thug, for instance, was born the year Summer Jam began.
The longtime DJ Mister Cee, known for his noon throwback sets, played his annual tribute to friend Biggie Smalls but also prefaced classic Brooklyn jams with the caveat that “this is what hip-hop sounded like before it went ratchet.” The disappointment in his voice was audible as he longed for a time before hip-hop decentralized, though he also conceded to the crowd with a set of current Southern hits to which one could indeed turn up. Sets by Nas and The Roots foregrounded the time warp, with the former performing songs off his 20-year-old classic Illmatic, and the latter trotting out New York stalwarts like the Lox (for “Money Power Respect”), M.O.P. (for a very unexpected performance of “Ante Up,” accompanied by a brass section) and Dres of Black Sheep (for “The Choice Is Yours”) — nearly all of which were, unfortunately, illegible in the din of terrible sound mixing.
Though the shrieking crowd did not seem to mind, especially when the R&B heartthrob took off his shirt to reveal pulsating abs, the sound person even destroyed Trey Songz’s set, and when Ty Dolla $ign came out to perform Songz’s remix of his hit “Paranoid,” the mic seemed to be turned off for a good half of his performance. The mixing was better with standard MC/DJ line-ups, in which the onslaught of the new school was properly unleashed. Inveterate performers were tempered with emerging West Coast superstars Kid Ink, YG, DJ Mustard and Ty Dolla $ign (who had a better go of it the second time around), performing the new, cold, house-influenced sound of West Coast gangsta music. When Kid Ink dropped his DJ Mustard-produced smash “Show Me,” the rapper wandered into the floor seats, the screams of younger women near him wafting into his mic and underscoring the song’s staying power.
But the most apparent cultural shift came via the evening’s headliner: Nicki Minaj, the first woman Summer Jam headliner since Alicia Keys in 2008 and, barring this year’s performance by Sevyn Streeter, the only woman booked for the main bill in the years since. In 2012, Minaj was scheduled but did not perform after the Hot 97 DJ Peter Rosenberg dissed her — and women hip-hop fans — while hosting the festival’s smaller stage, announcing, “I know there’s some chicks here waiting to sing ‘Starships’ later, I’m not talking to y’all right now, fuck that bullshit. I’m here to talk about real hip-hop shit.”
As if to prove him wrong, she took to her pink Swarovski-encrusted mic with a vengeance, rapping old hits like “Beez in the Trap” and her MC-destroying “Monster” verse, as well as newer songs like “Lookin Ass” and the Soulja Boy-featuring “Yasss Bish!!!,” as though she were chewing and spitting out everyone around her. On her remixes of “Chiraq” and “Danny Glover,” for which she brought out the uber-relevant rappers Lil Herb and Young Thug, you could practically see her fangs grow. And on “Moment for Life,” one of the “pop” singles that, presumably, Rosenberg maligned, she sang passionately and defiantly with two back-up singers who borderline took it to church. In the best set of the night, she enunciated each word with utter confidence, showing just what type of polished, astoundingly precise rapper pop stardom has made her.
Still, Minaj’s most dramatic and exhilarating moment occurred about a half-hour in. Courting the Summer Jam expectation that beef shall be wrought — and, perhaps, echoing the chaos that went down in the G-Unit set earlier — the rapper announced that she had beef with one of her Young Money cohorts. “Drake? I used to love you, but nigga I don’t fuck with you no more!” The crowd was utterly shocked for about 15 seconds, moaning and booing… until Drake himself emerged to the beat of “Worst Behavior,” bodying his verses while Minaj smiled to herself, clearly proud her prank had gotten over.
And when the charismatic Lil Wayne emerged, shirtless and all smiles, for “Believe Me,” the reaction from 70,000-plus in the stadium showed that, perhaps, a new kind of Summer Jam was in order, perhaps one more about unity than division. It was an inveterate rapper from New Orleans feting his protégées — a fierce, drag-queen-channeling woman from Queens and a biracial nice-guy from Toronto — and it was the most current hip-hop moment of the night.