It took a couple of decades for Jay Z to become a festival artist. Assuredly, the renowned rapper has long had both the tracks and the chops to command a massive crowd, going back at least to 2003’s faux farewell Fade To Black concert at Madison Square Garden. Some 14 years later, onstage at The Meadows Music and Arts Festival before an audience of revelers grateful for the post-sundown set, Shawn Carter proved what he didn’t need to prove, showed what we already know–that he is one of the greatest to ever do the damn thing.
Older fans may have wondered when Carter would get to the really old stuff standing in the humid late summer darkness in the wilds of Queens, New York. The enormous Jeff Koons balloon towering above the stage should’ve tipped them off. This wasn’t a time for Reasonable Doubt deep cuts or Roc-A-Fella reunions. This was Jay Z in 2017, with 4:44 still fresh yet familiar enough that “Family Feud” and “Marcy Me” elicited genuine thrills. Unlike Fade To Black, Carter didn’t need a lazy susan’s worth of special guests to feed his fans. Damian Marley appeared for 4:44’s “Bam” and a run-through of his solo hit “Welcome To Jamrock”. Beyond that, Carter stood solo, even on cuts like “Big Pimpin” and “No Church In The Wild” that existentially begged for accompaniment. He dedicated “The Story Of O.J.” to the recently departed comic Dick Gregory and honored Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington with the “Numb/Encore” mash-up from Collision Course.
Despite hosting legacy alt rock acts like Weezer and the Red Hot Chili Peppers on its quartet of stages, The Meadows is a hip-hop festival, albeit one in mild denial. More indebted to the genre than its early summer sibling Governors Ball, the three-day event in the radically reconfigured parking lots of Citi Field, home to perennial baseball underdogs the New York Mets, positions itself as general interest with Coachella-esque indies and just a smattering of EDM.
Yet no amount of mid-afternoon electronic skronk from GTA can detract from The Meadows’ pervasive sense of a homecoming to rap’s fertile crescent. Though the Flushing Bay waters a short stroll from the festival grounds remain as grimly fetid as ever, New York’s hip-hop provenance felt vibrant and alive. Indeed, choosing to host this event inside the actual borough of Queens as opposed to on some randomly convenient city-adjacent plot like Randall’s or Governors Island suggests an inherent desire on the part of Founders Entertainment to honor the location’s musical history. (The decision to host a number of Queens-based restaurants including the New York Times feted Dumpling Galaxy in the FEASTival zone further matches that spirit.)
Hip-hop listeners both casual and steadfast alike had a multigenerational bevy of talents to choose from, including the hyperlocal Action Bronson, LL Cool J, and Nas. Further to that, many artists paid it forward by bringing out noteworthy guests, with Gorillaz presenting Yasiin Bey, Run The Jewels proffering Gangsta Boo, and Tory Lanez unleashing Busta Rhymes. Though he still managed to play close to 20 songs of his own, Future donated a portion of his time on the main stage to a Young Thug mini-set and a surprise performance of “Rake It Up” by Yo Gotti and Nicki Minaj.
Apart from a Two Door Cinema Club here and a Tegan and Sara there, The Meadows’ lineup bore closer resemblance to hip-hop festivals like A3C in Atlanta or Rolling Loud in California. The popular modern trap scene was well represented and well served by 21 Savage and Migos, while rap heavyweights like Jay-Z and Outkast’s own Big Boi reminded that even the 40-somethings can still hang. The decision not to book or brand The Meadows purely as a hip-hop festival could be interpreted as a hedging of bets, or perhaps a cynical yet sadly shrewd way to ensure a more civil police presence. Nonetheless, it was clear to attendees what they were in for.
At no point was The Meadows’ exultant rap sentiment more overt than during LL Cool J’s downright stunning set. Backed by his fellow Queens native Z-Trip on the 1s and 2s, the rapper-turned-actor put on a show as jubilant as it was defiant. Fresh off the explosive opener “Mama Said Knock You Out”, the veteran pugilist in fighting form posed a question from behind his golden microphone stand: “You ready for some old school hip-hop?” Ready or not, the crowd got precisely that: a whirlwind tour through roughly three decades of music. LL stormed through a handful of his hits, including “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and the crowd-pleasing “Rock The Bells”. Midway through “I’m Bad”, Q-Tip emerged from stage left for a rendition of “Vivrant Thing”. Later, clad in a Beastie Boys tee, DMC came through for the golden age jam “It’s Tricky”. Towards the end, Furious Five alums Melle Mel and Scorpio joined up for “The Message”. It was a democratic celebration of rap music, with LL the smirking architect perhaps having the most fun of all.
The Meadows offered more than a history lesson, of course. Relative newcomer Kamaiyah flew in from California to showcase several cuts off of her breakthrough A Good Night In The Ghetto. Though apparently feeling under the weather, her utter joy burst through, aided by a particularly colorful jacket featuring characters from the old Rugrats cartoon. Like her, local miscreants Flatbush Zombies took full advantage of their early afternoon slot, animating an audience comprised of diehard devotees and increasingly more curious newcomers. Comfortable enough with the dynamic to play a few unreleased new tunes, the trio of Erick, Juice, and Meech deftly combatted the scourge of sunlight with their acid baked rap revelations.
Not every rapper on deck brought their proverbial A-game. With a robust audience ready to receive his rhymes, Action Bronson devoted more energy to smoking a sizable blunt and hawking his cookbook than actually rapping. “I can walk to the crib from here,” he exclaimed during one of the lengthy breaks between musical numbers, performing as if he would much rather be there than here. Long Island’s own De La Soul faithfully delivered classics like “Me Myself & I” yet came off needlessly like grumpy old men during their chastising about cell phone usage with the crowd.
After decades in the business, Ghostface Killah’s prowess on the mic remains essentially unparalleled. It would have been nice to see more than mere glimmers of that excellence from the Wu Tang legend onstage this weekend. Arguably the festival’s low point, Tony Starks crowded his stage with multiple hype men and a well-intentioned yet underutilized live band. It quickly descended into a grand meander, replete with a live skit consisting of TV theme songs. With merely an hourlong scheduled runtime, his half-hearted set ceded more time to his DJ’s whims and to rapper Killah Priest than to the multitudes of choice material from his solo discography and the group records at his disposal.
Where Shaolin’s soldier faltered, QB’s finest picked up the slack. Nas took to the main stage to the hard funk of the James Brown sampling God’s Son opener “Get Down”, a rare non-single in a festival-ready set of an instantly recognizable assortment of the homegrown rapper’s delights. From Illmatic jazz-rap throwbacks “The World Is Yours” through later jams like the once-divisive “Hip Hop Is Dead”, Nas entertained the crowd with finesse and grace in a career-spanning fashion. Of the latter cut, he retorted “I do feel hip-hop is alive.” After three days of rap music, anyone in attendance assuredly felt the same.
Photographer: Ben Kaye