Pitchfork Music Festival Seamlessly Fused Soul, Rap, and Rock onto One Bill for its Friday Kickoff
CHICAGO, IL– Pitchfork Music Festival seamlessly fused soul, rap, and rock onto one bill for its Friday kickoff. Brooklyn newcomers Standing On The Corner veered us into an experimental direction for nu-jazz before local legend Mavis Staples took us to church with gospel R&B. Back to back sets from Rico Nasty, Valee, Earl Sweatshirt, and Pusha T made the day a must for hip hop heads, and Grammy-nominated girl band HAIM closed the day out in their only scheduled show of the year.
Standing On The Corner was the first act I saw and a prime example of what was in store for the weekend. Led by Gio Escobar, the avant-jazz group is pretty much Pitchfork in a nutshell: eclectic, imaginative, and multifaceted.
Marked by languid beats and slo-mo vocals, their music possesses a deeply psychedelic quality. A drawn-out, hypnotic synth on “The Monkey On Your Back” gave me hints of 70s legends like Roy Ayers Ubiquity. But as they stripped the beat down to nothing but a single drum line reminiscent of a pounding heart, the song transformed into something unprecedented. Whenever I caught a glimpse of familiarity, Standing On the Corner was quick to twist the sound in some curious, provocative way.
Their live performance was energetic and catered to the crowd and got everyone moving. The band seemed to be enjoying themselves on stage as well – saxophonist Caleb Giles even paused to savor the moment and snap a picture on his disposable camera.
Following was Rico Nasty, who essentially incited the first mosh pit of the weekend before she even stepped on stage. DJ Miles opened her set with Chief Keef’s “Don’t Like,” a Chicago classic that sent the crowd into mania. Two attendees missed Rico’s performance altogether after paramedics dragged them off in stretchers amid the 108-degree heat index. This kind of set on this kind of day could only be possible at the shady Blue Stage, and we have to thank the staff at Pitchfork for thinking that one through.
Rico’s defiant, zany style made her a standout among this year’s XXL Freshman Class. In the magazine’s take on Jimmy Kimmel’s “mean tweets” segment, she read the comment, “this girl scares me.” Adorned in dozens of colorful, childlike hair clips juxtaposed with jagged black paint framing her eyes, Rico retorted, “I feel like that’s the point.”
Jarring electric guitar on “Smack A Bitch” showed off her hardcore punk side, and the whimsical beat on “Poppin” epitomized her self coined “sugar trap” sound. From track to track, her vocals remain consistent with abrasive and unflinching delivery. Her most recent collaboration with producer Kenny Beats, Anger Management, has received critical acclaim for challenging stereotypes and proudly owning the label of “angry black woman.” Rico shamelessly expresses her full range of emotions, and we love her even more for it.
Her exhausted audience funneled into the Red Stage for a much-appreciated change of pace during Valee’s performance. In spite of his hype man and DJ’s best efforts, the crowd was not interested in getting up and jumping. It was clearly nothing personal as not even “Mo Bamba” moved them. Roaming around the stage and burning a blunt all the while, Valee seemed to be in tune with his fans. As a matter of fact, his hype man sort of looked like a spaz in his uber-cool presence.
Valee’s slow pace may have more to do with sleep deprivation than a lean or Xanax habit. In an interview with none other than Pitchfork, he called sleep overrated and said he finds that “you don’t need much sleep to do what you gotta do. I try to sit still a lot so that when I am woke, I ain’t f****** doing nothing.”
The G.O.O.D. Music signee caught Kanye West’s attention with his nonchalant, staccato flow over lackadaisical beats. His trance-like trap style feels simultaneously ominous and soothing, and his infectious hooks keep his music on the right side of the fine line between laid back and boring. As someone with dainty flowers inked in the space beside his eye that rappers usually reserve for tear tattoos, it makes sense that his music caters to those who like to lay low and get stoned.
Though he put on a solid performance, a tiny, beet red Chihuahua ultimately stole the show. Valee’s fans may have recognized the dog from the cover art of his recent album Runnin’ Rich, or from media criticism about his decision to dye his dog red in the first place. He’s gone on record to defend transforming his pet into a real-life furbee by stating that the outlandish color was achieved with chemical-free, vegan dye. But my biggest concern was how the little guy felt surrounded by blaring speakers emitting frequencies no human can hear.
Next up on the Red Stage was a comeback performance by Earl Sweatshirt. The rapper/producer dropped out of last year’s lineup after his estranged father, activist and poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, suddenly passed prior to their planned reunion in South Africa. Keorapetse never had the chance to hear his son’s most recent project Some Rap Songs, which was meant to mend their relationship.
In a candid discussion with Vibe, Earl explained that he’d nixed upcoming shows in order to avoid performing in a compromised headspace. “That’s some dice I’m not trying to roll. I need to process and heal some things for myself before I can be presenting myself.” Considering the depth of emotion his forlorn lyrics and dismal beats tap into, it makes sense that he’d pace his return to the stage.
To say that Earl has soul would be a massive understatement. At certain points during the performance, it seemed as if he was so consumed with intensely personal lyrics that he’d forgotten about his audience altogether. Fans knew every word of Some Rap Songs, proving that they’re here for his evolution from crass teenage internet sensation to mastermind musician. I know mastermind musician is a lofty statement, so let me back that up. Earl’s stream of consciousness lyrical style has transformed into pure poetry, and influence from Pitchfork Music Festival’s own Standing On the Corner and MIKE has only enhanced his intricate production.
Ethereal textures stacked over cyclical drum patterns give a repetitious nature to his beats, and expertly cut and looped samples are woven together developed a sense of nostalgia and displacement. With audio snippets from the likes of James Baldwin, Black Dynamite, Western Electric Company, and his own parents as well as samples from obscure 80s composers The Ghostwriters and a number of 70s soul artists, Earl created a sonic collage on Some Rap Songs. Ranging from lullaby-like “The Mint” to nightmarish “Peanut,” the densely layered project is an inside look at Earl’s mood swinging mind.
Is it obvious who my favorite Friday artist was yet? Let me cut my Earl Sweatshirt fan-girling short and say that even with a plain stage devoid of any flashy backdrops, I was enamored with his set purely off the strength of his talent.
Over at the Green Stage, another G.O.O.D. Music artist gave an opposite performance of label mate Valee’s. Pusha T built momentum as he leisurely strolled on stage, unhurried by the crowd’s uproar. Hands calmly clasped in front of him, he gazed around the festival grounds with a smirk on his face. Once the tension reached its bubbling point, he flipped the switch and went wild running through his vast collection of hits from the past decade.
Pusha is a true performer. His crazed expression while rapping about the harsh reality of drug dealing makes the lifestyle that defined his sound feel vividly real in spite of the fact that he is now long separated from it. Heavy moshing punctuated by booming cannons only added to the intensity he brought to the set. Throughout his performance, he shouted out collaborator Kanye West and even performed his rendition of “Runaway,” which he co-wrote with Ye.
He also boldly declared that their joint project Daytona was rap album of the year. Claiming to be the best is part of hip hop culture, but I’d say Pusha has more to back this notion than the next braggadocious rapper since Daytona was up for Rap Album of the Year at the 2018 Grammy Awards. The fact that he lost to Cardi B just adds weight to his words. The mainstream, breakout superstar practically had her name on the award before the Academy even announced its nominees.
Pusha T’s exit was the same as his entrance, but not quite as effective. He walked off stage unceremoniously, and I think the crowd missed the fact that the set was done altogether as they held their applause.
Later, the city of Chicago’s loving grandma Mavis Staples proved her voice has held up through the ages. Born in Chitown 80 years ago, she’s been an advocate of all things wholesome for decades now. “We’ve come here to bring you joy, happiness, inspiration, and positive vibrations,” she declared at the start of her set. Everything she said felt straight out of a Hallmark card, and her newfound followers hung on every word.
Though most her age are retired, Mavis has no plans to slow down anytime soon and even released a new album this year called We Get By. Next on her agenda is a presidential run, which she alluded to after some classic Donald Trump jabs. With life experience that includes marching alongside MLK in Selma and advocating for her beliefs over the past eight decades, I think she’s certainly qualified.
Last on the ticket were sisters Danielle, Este, and Alana, a.k.a. HAIM. I’ve never really been much of a fan of the pop-rock trio, but they blew me away live. Dramatic, red lowlight set them aglow as they entered the stage and drummed in sync. With stellar vocals and a refined, retro-glam image, HAIM is the total package.
The family band handled their first headlining set like vets and playfully bantered the whole way through. After some back and forth about who threw the first pitch at the Cubs game, Danielle joked that she didn’t expect a family therapy session in front of twenty- thousand people.
They also poked fun at themselves for partaking in the cliched, stripped-down acoustic performance. Each seated on a plain stool under a beaming spotlight, they strummed along to songs including “Go Slow” before returning to all their glittery theatrics for hits like “I Want You Back,” “My Song 5,” and “The Wire.”
Rock’s first lady Stevie Nicks suggested that the girls of HAIM could be the next women inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame if they focus on solo careers. But their jaw-dropping performance proved that they’re going to set a record of their own rather than following in Stevie’s footsteps. I look forward to HAIM’s induction as the first all-female band to make the Hall of Fame someday.