Well, that was awesome. The Super Bowl halftime show finally opened up to hip-hop—this was the first time the rappers got to bumrush center stage, instead of serving as a sideshow. And it was a triumph. Dr. Dre presided over an all-time great Super Bowl blowout, rocking alongside Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, 50 Cent, Kendrick Lamar, and Anderson .Paak on drums. It was a celebration of West Coast rap history at the SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, in a battle between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals.
The whole lineup was a dream-team of rap old-schoolers, with Kendrick as the new kid on the block. Indeed, this had to be the most Gen-X Super Bowl ever: Dre, Snoop, Mary, Em, Meadow Soprano’s car commercial, Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy, Salt N Pepa, Doja Cat doing Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” and a Bengals quarterback who looks like he’s Spiral Stairs in a Pavement tribute band.
Dre kicked it off on a beautifully sparse white sci-fi set, a contrast to last year’s halftime where the Weeknd used a flashy, busy, vertigo-inducing special effects to hide the lack of action. This time, the music was front and center. Anderson .Paak held it down on drums, with a guitarist rocking a fly Fender Jazzmaster. Dre and Snoop teamed up for “The Next Episode” and “California Love.” It was all good from Diego to the Bay, with Dre rapping the first Liberace shout-out in Super Bowl history, while proudly updating his boast to “I been in the game for 30 years making rap tunes/Ever since honeys was wearing Sassoons.”
50 Cent—the show’s token East Coast MC, repping Queens—did “In Da Club.” He made his big entrance upside down, looking miserable, but he did his best once he got on his feet. Mary J. Blige, the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, took over to do her Dre-produced classics “Family Affair” and “No More Drama,” railing against hateration and holleration in a white suit and thigh-high disco-ball mirror boots. (It was exactly 20 years since Mary J. took her first bow at the Super Bowl halftime, alongside Aerosmith.)
Kendrick did “Alright,” the only explicitly political song in the set, and a daring choice given the NFL’s ongoing, endless controversies over its racism. The line about “and we hate pop-po” got censored, but he seemed to be feinting at taking a knee—if his knee touched the ground, the camera didn’t show it. (The NFL seemed determined to show K-Dot mostly from the waist up, Elvis-style.)
The big dramatic moment: Eminem did take a knee at the end of “Lose Yourself,” an unmissable shout out to Colin Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter movement. Given the NFL’s blatantly racist ban on Kaepernick, after he began the take-a-knee movement to protest police brutality, it was a bold move. So the knee made all the difference, and the NFL got tackled on its home field.
Eminem did a fiery version of the inevitable “Lose Yourself.” At the side of the stage, 50 Cent was recovering on a white couch with Mary J. Blige. But it really hit home when he took a knee at the end—he totally committed to the gesture, for an unforgettable and emotional moment. He lingered on his knee with his head down, while Dre played Tupac’s “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” on piano. When Dre gathered everyone onstage for the finale of “Still D.R.E.,” the victorious look on his face was well-earned.
In terms of the NFL and hip-hop, there’s no escaping the shadow of Colin Kaepernick. Since his blacklisting from football in 2017, African-American stars have conspicuously kept their distance from the Super Bowl. Cardi B and Rihanna are just two of the high-profile stars to turn it down in solidarity with Kaepernick. “I couldn’t dare do that,” Rihanna told Vogue in 2019. “For what? Who gains from that? Not my people. I just couldn’t be a sellout. I couldn’t be an enabler. There’s things within that organization that I do not agree with at all, and I was not about to go and be of service to them in any way.”
Hip-hop only began to feature in the halftime show 20 years ago, when Nelly joined Aerosmith in 2001 to throw down on “Walk This Way.” Aerosmith were the headliners—the first rock band ever to headline—but for them, Nelly stole the show. As Steven Tyler told Rolling Stone a few days later, “The highlight for me was Nelly, the underdog, rapping over a solo I’ve heard Joe [Perry] take for thirty years. That was flipped-out throw-down spoken-word shit! It was beautiful!” Perry added, “The irony of standing there in the middle of that fuckin’ straight corporate America — because football is pretty, you know, Republican — and to have that electric guitar loud and live with Nelly standing next to me, doing his thing, was such a fuckin’ triumph. I was going, this is it, man, everything else led up to this.”
Since Kaepernick, the only rappers who’ve gotten lured to the Super Bowl have been Travis Scott and Big Boi, who both tried to bail out Maroon 5. (Now that was a doomed mission.) Given the NFL’s complex history with hip-hop, and its shoddy record on racism, it’s about time there was a halftime show dedicated to rap. But in Super Bowl terms, hip-hop is really right on schedule. The halftime show has always leaned conservative, favoring old-schoolers with a few decades behind them. Diana Ross headlined the halftime show in 1996, 33 years after the Supremes’ first hit, while for Dre it’s 34 years after Straight Outta Compton. Paul McCartney was invited 42 years after “Love Me Do,” the Rolling Stones 41 years after “Satisfaction,” Bruce Springsteen 33 years after “Blinded By The Light,” Madonna 39 years after “Holiday.”
But this halftime show was the big moment it needed to be. It was a career highlight for practically everyone involved, a history lesson in the G-Funk era, a moment to remember and mourn Nate Dogg and Roger Troutman and Tupac and so many others. It was a proud moment for rap fans, especially Nineties ones. (My sister texted me “I could have used a cameo from Michel’le,” and as always, she’s right. Justice for “Nicety”!) It was also a timely reminder of why hip-hop is crucial to the story of American music—at its best, as it was tonight, hip-hop is the story of American music.
Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg, “The Next Episode”
Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg, “California Love”
50 Cent, “In Da Club”
Mary J. Blige, “Family Affair”
Mary J. Blige, “No More Drama”
Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”
Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, Dr. Dre: “Forgot About Dre”
Eminem, “Lose Yourself”
Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, “Still D.R.E.”