Only the world's genuinely upper-echelon performing artists regularly get the opportunity to do stadium shows. And stadium shows are always a serious undertaking, even for the calibre of performer that has the fanbase to warrant such a venue. I'd argue it's particularly difficult for hip-hop artists; the culture, defined broadly, simply does not have the years of experience that rock and roll has of pulling off these kinds of shows. For a touring rapper, local or international, the gulf between stomping out a sweaty set upstairs at Laundry and lifting the roof off the Corner Hotel isn't that much of a stretch in sonic terms. But stadium sets are qualitatively different, for both performers and audience. How well performers adapt to those differences makes or breaks their ability to reach football-sized crowds in football-sized venues.
360, the first billed artist of the event, is a particularly interesting case in point. Coming in off a stretch of studio time prepping the notoriously difficult follow-up record, the next twelve months in Sixty's career will be instructive as to what the upper bounds of his popularity might be. If another single or two can penetrate mainstream airwaves and consciousness in the same way that 'Boys Like You' and 'Killer' did, he could become a genuine staple of festivals and the bigger halls across Australia for quite a few years. Make no mistake, a proportion of this Rapture set needs to become the 360 set: skewed young, fifty-fifty in terms of gender and already invested in a blonde rapper with stories of ups and downs to share. Sixty admirably executed to a cavernous but filling stadium. He wrested genuine momentum and audience engagement when he strung his three hit singles in a row, and attempted to strike the difficult balance between dropping too much new material on an audience yet to have the opportunity to hear much of it.
Action Bronson struck me as an unusual replacement for Chance The Rapper when I found out that he would be filling in. A bit of an 'inside baseball' type, Bronson is loved in some underground circles but has had little exposure to the sort of audience that was in the arena at that point. This could've worked well for an artist coming halfway around the world for an appearance cheque and some exposure to a new market, but he did little to meet the crowd halfway in terms of the sonics and the sense of occasion. A somewhat technical MC with an obtuse lyrical sense and a curiously dry taste in production, he blazed a megajoint on stage and delivered scripts with humour and force in equal doses. A medley of verses over flips of 80s rock tunes was a memorable moment. Rapture was probably not the ideal time or the place for this crowd to first experience Bronson's work, but it's unlikely a huge proportion of them were ever likely to become his fans anyway. In the end, for artists taking slots like this, nothing ventured is nothing gained.
J Cole's live outfit seemed tuned to reinforce an overarching sense of tradition that hazes over his recent work. Characterising himself as a direct descendant of recent revered New York MCs, he draws upon these tried and tested frameworks without lapsing into being nostalgic or derivative. It's a modern yet conventional take on the East Coast approach, and he managed to carry out this premise effectively on the night. Some of the older material didn't stand up particularly well in relation to the stronger 'Born Sinner' numbers, but a sense of gratitude and wonder at standing before a crowd that knew his lines so far from home held it together. At the strongest moments, the band took Cole's production to a higher plane, sounding more vibrant and substantial than the originals. At other times, the band stretched the source material a little too far and detracted from the power and honesty his production tends to have at its best moments. Jermaine's next record will let us know us whether or not he can take the next step and be the superstar he clearly wants to be, but on this night he carried out his duties with sincerity and spirit.
Kendrick Lamar is alternatively marked as the descendant of the West Coast hip-hop lineage and he knows very well that now is his time. His presence seemed more distant than Cole's gratitude, more aloof. But it made perfect sense in context of what we know of who he is and the record that he made, the masterful Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. The set consisted almost exclusively of tracks from Good Kid, with Lamar's band prowling like a carefully refined rock ensemble, delivering grit and control in equal measures. All in all it felt the way a live reimagining of these songs should have sounded, and due to the strength of the material this was some genuinely powerful shit to witness. 'Backseat Freestyle', 'Bitch, Don't Kill My Vibe' and 'Sing About Me, I'm Dying of Thirst' were phenomenal.
I wrote a while ago about my introduction to rap music, which happened to be a burnt copy of the Marshall Mathers LP I got from high school friend in 2001. It seems incredible to me now that was thirteen years ago. I admit to not following along closely to the albums after the Eminem Show. I wasn't listening to a great deal of hip-hop at the time and the stuff I was hearing from him just wasn't drawing me in like it used to. For me, the ninety or so minutes of the great Eminem arena spectacular I witnessed was half an exercise in curiosity and half in nostalgia.
The show delivered on both counts. It was a spectacular stage production with a phenomenal and phenomenally large live band, custom-built and finely tuned to play stadiums like the one at Docklands. It had the kind of pyrotechnics and video displays that you've come to expect out of shows at this scale. The audience was enthralled; I heard a guy behind me who just yelled out in disbelief, 'that's Eminem!'
He tended to move quickly through the more traditional hip-hop numbers, as much as anything can be traditional in such circumstances. My nostalgia buttons were slammed hard when 'Criminal', 'Kill You', 'Square Dance', and 'Business' rang out, if only for a verse and chorus each. There was plenty of newer material to go around as well, with the big Rihanna-hooked numbers getting special attention from both the audience and the stage.
It's quite clear that what was presented was rap music larger than life, larger than it was ever designed to be. Like going to the cinema after watching movies on your TV, these sorts of shows are qualitatively different experiences; not as intimate, but in exchange far more spectacular. They aren't the sort of thing you do very often, and it's probably just as well or the impact of the scale of things might begin to wear off. The idea of Rapture as an ongoing 'festival' in this form seems to me to be a little implausible, simply due to the fact that there's only one guy who can headline this kind of event in Australia and he surely can't come back every year. But for one night we had some solid opening acts, the biggest up and comers from the two Coasts and the biggest rap star the world has ever seen one the one stage. That's a pretty big itself, right?