Hot 97’s Summer Jam bills itself as “The Biggest Hip-Hop Show on Earth,” a 10-hour circus held in a football stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, where the lights gets brighter as the night goes longer. Each year, the lineup reads like the side of a cereal box: for the event’s 20th anniversary, held yesterday, Hot97 invited Wu-Tang Clan, Chris Brown, 2 Chainz, Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky and on and on – on top of the nine acts on the pre-show festival stage, and not even counting the never-ending special guests. It was spectacle for spectacle’s sake, where the point is to juggle as many kitchen sinks as possible. With so much going on, one could almost forget Miguel spinning around Mariah Carey and J. Cole like a garden nymph, or everyone loving Meek Mill, or A$AP Rocky bringing out Bone Thugs, or that Joe Budden even opened the show.
By the end of the night, the show threatened to burst at the seams: overshadowed were moments like Foxy Brown never coming out because Fabolous welcomed Lil’ Kim to the stage by calling her “the queen.” The time slipped away: where Miguel and Chris Brown went on far too long, French Montana’s microphones were cut off right after Lil Wayne and Rick Ross showed up for “Pop That.” Jay-Z and Beyoncè were spotted backstage; Wale had a pretty solid set. And somehow, with this embarrassment of riches, 12 hours later, all anyone could talk about is how Papoose – whose biggest success was failing to put out an album – ended up performing on any stage, let alone one as big as Summer Jam’s. (There are surprises, and there are surprises.)
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Wu-Tang, ostensibly the headliners, walked into an arena that seemed far more familiar with French Montana’s catalog than theirs, their Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) also celebrating 20 years. Though facing an uncertain audience, the group looked and sounded strong, and not just for their age: Method Man careened around as if within a pinball machine; Raekwon pushed through the crowd, a bowling ball with arms. Ghostface marched around with Meth’s youngest child, sending the boy into laughing fits as U-God rapped his part of “Triumph.” Though their songs are too complex for a room the size of MetLife Stadium, it was a fascinating show: the eight-to-nine members would arrange themselves in two rows and then pull out into football routes; it was a Broadway production of Scared Straight or a bizarre tag-team wrestling match. Blink and ODB’s son (“Young Dirty Bastard”) suddenly jumped onstage, with Inspectah Deck trying to stop security from seizing him. YDB’s hair pointed this way and that, he barked “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” convincingly, exuding his father’s weirdness, even if just as a costume. As their time wound down, Rza said, “New York forgot about us for awhile, man. Let me show you how to do the Wu-Tang sign.” Even if the crowd never quite gelled with the music, their branding was well intact.
Far more successful at bridging every gap was 2 Chainz, a jangly-armed Zeitgeist figure who has won over America with humor, street knowledge and a Bootsy Collins voice. “Mercy,” “Crack,” and “I’m Different” were all run through in quick succession before bringing out Nicki Minaj for a couple of their collaborations. (These were songs DJ Peter Rosenberg could approve of; the two hugged for the cameras as she walked offstage.) The stage empty, 2 Chainz paused. Even while wearing a leather snapback hat resembling a Keyser’s helmet and a loud Versace sweatshirt, he looked serious for a moment. He said, “Can we get a moment of silence real quick? R.I.P. . . to the motherfucking stage,” immediately jerking his entire body and moving his elbows as if eating a plate of spaghetti. At the end of the song, he dropped the microphone, dead.
When given the chance, New York artists did well, too. With the stabs of “Work (Remix)” ringing out, A$AP Rocky welcomed A$AP Ferg, who brought out Trinidad James and Schoolboy Q, a swirl of bodies kicking and screaming. (It would’ve looked terrifying if everyone had not been smiling.) Even after they’d handed over the keys, the A$AP Mob continued to own the stage, heating up during Schoolboy’s stupendous guest appearance for “Yay Yay” and boiling over for Kendrick’s “m.A.A.d. City” as buckets of rain poured down. (Kendrick’s set, while good, was restrained; it needed the jolt of methamphetamine and sugar that A$AP provided.)
French Montana’s set got off to a great start, crazy for someone so sluggish. The reaction to “I’ma Coke Boy” and “Ocho Cinco” made one wonder if French is undervalued; then again, there’s a whole world beyond the Hudson. The clock spinning out of control, Ace Hood came out to do “Bugatti.” As the instrumental started to play, DJ Khaled charged onstage like a rhinoceros through the brush. “Pop That” got the biggest reaction of the night and then, with French in the middle of singing the opening refrain to “Ain’t Worried About Nothing,” it was over. Just like that. The group onstage took a picture for Instagram, twice for safety. He, Ross and Meek Mill threw a bunch of money into the crowd. An unseen announcer told everyone to leave, but no one moved onstage and the crowd seemed more interested in the bills floating in the air. The voice added, finally, as people began to dive to the ground, “Don’t kill each other. They’re just one-dollar bills.”