When I arrived early Sunday afternoon – the only day to sell out in advance – Union Park already felt like a different place.
The festival was crowded from the moment the gates opened. Lil B’s young and dutiful Bitch Mob showed up in numbers sporting pink bandanas. Older folks were already glowing in anticipation of R. Kelly’s timeless R. Kelly-ness. I think everyone else was tryna see M.I.A.
It was the day for rap and R&B day, which was sorely lacking the previous few days.
Autre Ne Veut provided a premeditated counterpoint to “I Believe I Can Fly” with his humbling, melancholic “I’m Gonna Die.” The young singer ripped up his voice to deliver an all-out set of emotional jams that you could feel him feel.
Killer Mike commanded Green Stage like he was the biggest rapper alive and made a welcome return just moments later during collaborator El-P’s fiery set, replete with a new pair of Jordans.
A different sort of rapper took to Red Stage after. The one and only Lil B rapped when he saw fit over the full tracks playing over the speakers. The crowd ate him up. No DJ and no hypemen needed, Lil B just did what he does best: be himself.
After the Based God’s fittingly bizarre performance, M.I.A. brought something more conventionally festive. Everything was in order: an elaborate set with flashing lights, backup dancers, and songs you could sing along to.
The crowd went crazy for her, even though technical difficulties broke up the set from time to time.
As good as the day’s acts were, it all added up to the festival headliner.
The PA countdown to R. Kelly’s set didn’t feel contrived or old hat, because I think we were waiting for liftoff all day.
I’m not at all about forgiving or forgetting what violences R. Kelly has enacted, but “Ignition (Remix)” is how you open your headlining set.
The following medley of hit after hit and the unpredictable breaks for a cappella, combined with his actually funny stage presence, was how you drive the set home.
In the festival’s eighth year, the organizers have figured out what makes this event tick. Up-and-coming bands (that Pitchfork has made up-and-coming) get their moment in the sun. Corporate sponsors dole out enough kefir and snow cones that we won’t pass out.
And, on nights as correct as Sunday night, the festival headliner will release dove balloons in the air. We can’t help but smile.