Review: Jay-Z +More at The 2017 Made In America Festival in Philadelphia, USA

For six years and counting, the Made In America Festival has filled Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway every Labor Day weekend with music fans there to see reputable artists of all genres perform.  With diverse lineups, it’s a way to have people of all tastes and backgrounds party together, which is something America seems to desperately need in 2017.  The artists are personally handpicked by festival founder and Hip-Hop legend Jay-Z, who would also be headlining the festival for the first time since its inaugural year.  Coming from Canada, this concert would not only be exciting because of the eclectic lineup Jay put together, but also because it meant going on a road trip with some close friends to a city we’ve never been to.

While being relatively quiet on the music front in recent years, Jay-Z has come back in a huge way in 2017.  He’s made headlines recently by welcoming twins with his wife Beyonce, signing a ten-year touring deal with Live Nation, being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and releasing one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year, 4:44.  It’s arguably the most mature and introspective album of the thirteen he’s released over his career, with an emphasis on his message of family values and long-term thinking rather than flows and bars.  While Jay is set to go on the highly anticipated 4:44 Tour in the fall, including two shows in my hometown Toronto in November, this set at Made In America would be one of his first performances since releasing the new album.

Besides Jay-Z, this year’s festival would be co-headlined by J. Cole, who we of course reviewed when he hit Toronto on his 4 Your Eyez Only Tour back in July.  Other Hip-Hop artists we were excited to see on the lineup included Run The Jewels, Pusha T, Vic Mensa, J.I.D, Rapsody, Nick Grant and Lizzo.  We were especially excited for a chance to see DMX perform, as we knew we’ll likely never get to see him in our country due to his criminal record, but were disappointed to find out he was removed from the lineup after he couldn’t get his legal situation handled.  By removing DMX, there seemed to be a big gap in the lineup, as most of the artists regardless of genre debuted in the new millennium, leaving Jay-Z as the sole artist representing that mid-late 1990’s era.

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The weeks leading up to the festival only built on the excitement after the initial lineup was announced.  About one month ahead of the festival, fans who bought their passes early received them in a fancy gift box in the mail, which included a Tidal free trial (which only worked for those in the US) along with the wristband.  It was cool seeing new technology being used in the festival pass, as the wristband contained a chip used to get through security when registered, and also had the option to register credit card info for faster food & drink purchases on the festival grounds.  I had my doubts about this at first, but the inclusion of registering a PIN number made the chip feel safer to use as a credit card.

After spending a day exploring the city and meeting some of the locals, we were in for a wet one to start the two-day festival.

 

Day One – Saturday, September 2nd

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The weather was terrible for day one of the festival, with rain pouring down the entire time, but this didn’t stop massive crowds from coming out to party.  After exploring the festival grounds, I realized this may be the biggest festival I’ve ever been to, with five stages, dozens of food trucks/tents, and a ferris wheel and carousel in the middle of the parkway.  No matter where you went, there were a ton of people to maneuver around.

By the time we got through the main entrance and walked across the parkway, Lizzo was just wrapping up her set on the Liberty Stage with the same dance crew she had with her at NXNE in Toronto.  We caught some of her wicked vocals before heading back to the Tidal stage near the front entrance, where we hoped to catch Nick Grant perform next.  I was hyped to see him perform a second time after seeing him open for Ab-Soul back in May, but the set times on the Made In America app weren’t accurate, and a rock band went on during his time slot.  We ended up walking back to the Liberty Stage to see Cardi B, who had some cool clubbing type of Hip-Hop songs.

The festival had been a struggle up to this point, with the heavy rain killing the vibe, and the large crowds and pushy people making it difficult for the squad to stick together.  Migos and Vic Mensa were up next at the large stages, but we opted for a change of scenery and went over to the smaller, almost hidden Skate Stage to see J.I.D.  The grassy area had a cool Budweiser beer garden and a skate ramp that were completely spoiled by the rain, but a crowd slowly accumulated as J.I.D’s time slot approached.

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It turned out that J.I.D. traded time slots with EarthGang, who just announced earlier in the week that they had also signed to J. Cole’s Dreamville Records.  Being good friends, frequent collaborators and now label mates, it didn’t really matter that J.I.D traded his time slot, as they all joined each other on stage during the two sets.  I had never listened to EarthGang’s music before this festival, but the Atlanta duo brought a ton of energy to the stage, getting the crowd hyped as they slayed their rapid-fire verses and got everyone to join in on their catchy hooks. J.I.D joined them on stage for one track before going backstage to let them wrap up their set.

The crowd only got bigger at the Skate Stage by the time J.I.D took over.  We had seen him open for J. Cole on the 4 Your Eyez Only Tour back in July, but this set would be a lot better with a more interactive crowd.  He went through a bunch of songs off his 2017 debut album, The Never Story, including “Lauder,” “Underwear” and “EdEddnEddy,” before bringing EarthGang back out to rock with him.  They performed their song together produced by J. Cole, “D/Vision,” and the crowd got as hyped as they had been all day, jumping and waving their arms.  J.I.D then made the highlight of the day with the way he wrapped up his set: he walked through the crowd and climbed up on a tree to perform the first half of my personal favourite song off his album, “Never,” then crowd surfed back to the stage during the beat-change and got the whole crowd to jump as he rapped the second half from the stage.

Our time at the Skate Stage may have been the best part of day one.  Even though we had never listened to EarthGang before, their dope performance convinced my whole squad to get their brand new EP, Rags.  J.I.D also killed his set, bringing a much more interactive and energetic performance than when we saw him in Toronto.  The night was far from over though, as we made our way back to the main stage for the headliners.

Solange was putting on a soulful performance as we slowly maneuvered our way through the rain, large crowds, and the mud to get a decent view.  Just like her famous sister, her dance choreography was just as on point as her vocals, and she had great synergy with her band.  By the time we got near the front, she was wrapping up her set, and we decided to wait it out for J. Cole as we listened to Kaskade’s EDM performance in the distant background.

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The stage was eventually set up with a similar look to what J. Cole did in Toronto, with a set of jail bars hiding the band behind him, and Cole himself coming out in that same orange jumpsuit to portray his character on the  4 Your Eyez Only album.  His set list was almost exactly the same as what we saw in Toronto in July, except he removed the song “4 Your Eyez Only” due to time restraints.  He performed the entire 4 Your Eyez Only album minus the title track, starting with the intro “For Whom The Bell Tolls;” the lyrics “I see the rain pouring down” were so relevant.

Having skipped Philly on his recent 4 Your Eyez Only Tour, J. Cole basically put on the exact same show he’s been doing on the road.  Highlights included him getting everyone to sing with him for a double performance of “Ville Mentality,” and a throwback medley of several songs off of his Cole World: The Sideline Story album (although the camera budget didn’t allow him to pick a fan out to rap “Lights Please” with him).  It was a lot cooler seeing Cole’s show in a festival setting as opposed to an arena, as no assigned seating meant being able to get closer to the stage.  You can feel the crowd’s energy a lot more when you’re right there in the pit with them.

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After performing all but one song off of 4 Your Eyez Only, a handful of tracks off his debut Cole World: The Sideline Story, and one and a half songs off of his sophomore Born Sinner album, Cole wrapped up his set with a medley of tracks off of his third major-label album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive.  He rocked some fan favourites, mellowing out the crowd with “Love Yourz,” cranking up the energy with “A Tale of 2 Cities” and “G.O.M.D,” and ending the night with the catchy “No Role Modelz,” getting the crowd to sing along to the hook.

J. Cole’s performance must have been epic for those seeing him for the first time, as he nails all his vocals with no help from a hypeman or pre-recorded vocals, and is very interactive with the people.  Seeing this set list a second time was still dope, as the setting and the energy from being in the crowd was different from being high up in the stands at an arena.  The rain may have even helped the vibe of his set, as his newest album can get moody at times.

Overall, day one of Made In America was a fun time despite the weather.  The fans didn’t let it completely kill the vibe, and the artists even pushed through their sets while getting soaked.  Day two would have an even more epic lineup, and we were excited to try this again with the sun out.

 

Day 2 – Sunday, September 3rd

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With the sun shining bright, we started day two of the festival mid-day with Pusha T at the main Rocky Stage.  It had been a few years since I’d seen him perform, and it was dope to see him rock a massive festival crowd outdoors rather than a smaller nightclub.  His set list had changed drastically, as he now had two solo albums of songs to pick from, plus his classic collaborations with the Clipse and Kanye West.  The crowd rapped along with him as he did some favourites off of his King Push – Darkest Before The Dawn: The Prelude album like “Untouchable,” “Keep Dealing” and “Crutches, Crosses, Caskets.”  I was hoping he’d bring some of the Philly artists he worked with on the album like Beanie Sigel and Jill Scott, but he performed his entire set by himself.

While Pusha T skipped on performing some of my personal favourites like “King Push” and “Sunshine,” it was still a dope set with a lot of energy from the crowd.  Push also hinted at a new solo album produced entirely by Kanye West dropping within a year, calling it the album of the year regardless if it drops in 2017 or 2018.  After his set, we took a food and drink break while 21 Savage rocked the Liberty Stage in the background.  Next up would be my favourite rap group of this entire decade, Run The Jewels.

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Being a day-one fan who’s been to literally every concert Run The Jewels have had in Toronto, it was a proud moment seeing them rock a massive crowd like this.  Killer Mike and El-P performed a shortened version of the same set list they had when I caught them on the Run The World Tour back in February, and the large crowd was turned up for all of it.  The crowd jumped and moshed to the beats as Run The Jewels ran through several joints off the new RTJ3 album, and also did a handful of favourites off RTJ2 before ending the set with the title track from their first album.  Mike and El-P then returned to the stage for a performance of “Down,” making them only one of two acts on the entire lineup I saw do an encore performance at this festival.

After some refueling, we slowly maneuvered our way through the large crowd at the main stage as The Chainsmokers performed.  I don’t know much about their music, but they had some cool EDM and Pop songs I recognized from TV commercials that got the crowd dancing.  They also had some epic visuals, with pyrotechnics going off on the stage and fireworks lighting the clear evening sky from behind the stage.  While the crowd was tougher to maneuver through than the previous night, we eventually reunited the squad and got a decent spot as Chainsmokers wrapped up their set.  Marshmello’s EDM performance at the Liberty Stage could be heard in the background as we waited for Jay-Z to take the main stage.

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Eventually the curtain at the main stage dropped to reveal a monster-sized balloon poodle standing over the DJ booth, as Jay-Z’s DJ played some classic reggae chunes to set the vibe.  Almost the entire crowd pulled out their cellphones to get a picture of the legendary emcee, as Jay-Z came out and got things started with my favourite song off the new 4:44 album, “Bam.”  As if the song wasn’t already hype, Damian Marley joined Hov on stage to sing the hook, setting the show off with a bang!

As Damian left the stage, Jay reintroduced himself to the Philly crowd with his classic verses on The Black Album‘s “Public Service Announcement,” with the fans rapping along to every word.  Sticking with the classics, Jay then performed a track off of 2001’s The Blueprint with “Heart of the City,” reminding the crowd of his greatness with the lyric change: “Jigga held it down twenty summers, damn, where’s the love?!”

Jay touched on a different one of his many albums with every song he performed, going back to 4:44 with “Caught Their Eyes” before diving into a few of his Kanye West collaborations with “No Church In The Wild,” “Lucifer” and “Run This Town.”  The crowd seemed to know every word to every song, even when Jay performed his oldest throwback of the night with the twenty-year-old “Where I’m From,” spitting the second verse accapella.  Keeping things in the spirit of his hometown Brooklyn, he did a couple more tributes to his city with “Marcy Me” and “Empire State of Mind,” the crowd singing along to the Alicia Keys chorus on the latter track.

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Proving false the idea that rappers lose a step as they age, Jay showed his versatility by nailing all his different flows.  He did a couple Magna Carta… Holy Grail tracks with the trap-flavoured “Fuckwithmeyouknowigotit” and “Beach is Better,” giving a birthday shoutout to his wife Beyonce.  The crowd started to chant for Bey, but their hopes of seeing her join Jay on stage were killed when told them “it’s a nice gesture, but she ain’t working tonight.”  With Beyonce in mind, he went smoothly into his newest musical collaboration with her, “Family Feud,” and the DJ gave the instrumental a dope transition into the classic “U Don’t Know,” getting the crowd to jump.

Jay then mellowed out the crowd with some more 4:44 tracks, performing “Moonlight” and “The Story of O.J.”  He let the beat play out on the latter track, performing that quotable-filled second verse accapella and dropping the punchlines with the style of a stand-up comedian.  Things would then get a bit wild, as Jay commanded the crowd to form a mosh pit for his performance of the bouncy “Niggas in Paris,” and kept the energy levels high with “Jigga My Nigga.”  He then dove into a medley of some of his biggest chart-topping singles over the decades, performing songs like “Izzo,” “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” “On To The Next One,” and “I Just Wanna Love U.”

Continuing with the hits, he showed off his rapid-fire flow with 1999’s “Big Pimpin’,” getting the crowd to rap the late Pimp C’s verse and dedicating the song to Houston and the victims of Hurricane Harvey.  He kept it in the spirit of Texas for a bit, as he got everyone to sing Happy Birthday to Houston native Beyonce, who we speculate may have been backstage even though she didn’t perform.  He then paused to get the crowd to form another mosh pit before rocking out to his classic “99 Problems,” with the beat transitioning to Linkin Park’s “Points of Authority” on the second verse, and then back to Rick Rubin’s original beat for the hook.

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Next, Jay performed another 90’s throwback with “Hard Knock Life,” rapping all the verses and humbly letting the crowd continue to sing the chorus even after ending the song.  To end the set, the crowd got as involved as they had been all night, as Jay got a mic stand and did an inspired, locked-in tribute to the late Chester Bennington by nailing all his verses and adlibs on “Numb/Encore,” and getting everyone to sing Chester’s vocals.  The tribute to Chester was a beautiful ending to the set, but the Jigga man still had some surprises in store for the crowd.

Just as people started to clear out, Jay-Z appeared across the parkway on the Liberty Stage for an encore performance.  It took some time to orient ourselves and figure out he was at the opposite end of the park, but we could hear him performing rare cuts like his “Pump It Up Remix” and “I Know” as we made our way over there.  Jay then brought out Philly native Meek Mill and let him perform a couple songs, acting as Meek’s hypeman.  With longtime collaborator Just Blaze now on the turntables, Jay let him pick out some more rare, throwback album cuts to perform in a medley for his last few minutes.  This led to Jay nailing his first verse on “Hola Hovito,” the hook from “Money Ain’t a Thang,” and a verse from “Can I Get A…” before closing out the festival with what he called his favourite song, “Allure.”

Overall, it was an epic performance to cap off an epic festival.  Jay performed like a true professional, knowing exactly when and how to get the crowd involved, and when to go in and nail his vocals.  It was also cool how he ended up performing on two stages, giving the fans stuck in the back a chance to see him up close for the encore.  With so many years of relative absence from the music scene, it’s great to see the legend come back and set off his ten-year touring contract with an epic performance like this.  It was my first time seeing Jay perform in almost exactly seven years, and I’d say he exceeded the hype.

With thirteen albums to pick songs from, there was no telling which albums Jay would be able to touch on, but I was really happy to see my favourite album of his (The Black Album) get a lot of coverage with five songs.  The Philly crowd was also fun to party with, as they proved to be a diverse group of true fans who were engaged for the entire performance, although a lot of them seemed to have travelled from New York and New Jersey to see Jay.  It was a fun time visiting the city and meeting the people here, and the Made in America festival showed that Americans can still have a sense of unity and positivity even amongst the turbulent times their country is going through.

 

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