Photos by Timothy MorrisIce Cube’s main stage set on Saturday night drew what might be the largest crowd I’ve ever seen at Coachella—at least comparable to the now quasi-legendary (or infamous, depending whom you ask) Tupac hologram cameo of Snoop and Dre’s 2012 headlining set. Bodies extended to the back of the polo field in anticipation of much-ballyhooed rumors, and loose promises from Cube himself, that NWA would at last properly reassemble for the occasion.
The time was right for it. A couple weeks ago, the group was inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame—sans performance, which Cube attributed to a disagreement with the Rock Hall. But, as he noted on stage, “we at Coachella.” The festival has never been big on rap and hip-hop, particularly on the main stage, but when they do it, they do it big (see: the aforementioned hologram, Outkast’s A-for-effort holographic cube and Future cameo, Madonna making out on Drake). If NWA was going to properly reunite for a gig, this year’s fest would be the time and place. This summer’s Straight Outta Compton biopic summer thrust them back into mainstream cultural consciousness, at a moment that feels particularly auspicious for the kind of social flux and knuckle-cracking ingenuity that inspired them in the first place.It happened, kind of. Cube ascended the stage in a gold throne (sensing a theme here) shaped like a giant “west side” hand, asking the crowd if he could “keep it gangsta tonight,” to which they were happy to oblige. And he did, for about half the set. MC Ren and DJ Yella came out for “Straight Outta Compton,” “Fuck Tha Police,” and “Dopeman,” the latter of which also featured Cube’s son, O’Shea Jr., who played him in the film, and whom only Cube, proud dad that he is, seemed excited to see.The set was, by all means, solid. Ice Cube may be known more now for his cheesy films than his bars, but there’s a reason he keeps getting cast. The man has stage presence, and he delivered tracks like “Check Yo Self,” “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It,” “Why We Thugs,” and “Natural Born Killaz” with lean ferocity, while hyping the crowd till they were on their feet for more club-friendly tracks like “You Can Do It” and “We Be Clubbin’.” The stage itself was refreshingly devoid of gimmicks, with Cube evangelizing from atop a raised riser on the stage, arms outstretched in a custom white Dickies suit, schooling us on his pre-Disney days.
Ice Cube has been a cornball for a minute now—hell, he’s turned it into a brand—and so you can’t really knock him for tacky moments like “Real People” from his new Barbershop movie, a well-intentioned but forgettable duet for which he trotted out co-star Common, and flanked with film clips and animated barber poll overlays. Remember when they needed Minister Farrakhan to mediate their beef?As for the reunion itself—well, can you really call it that without Dr. Dre and Eazy-E? Yella never got on the mic. Ren stalked the stage in all-black and sunglasses, but mostly echoed verses. Still, the no-frills set-up, their simple but plain outfits, and the one-two punch of their delivery—offered with renewed urgency as recent footage of police brutality played on the screens—recalled, however briefly, why NWA was dubbed the World’s Most Dangerous Rap Group. Cube noted that organizers didn’t want him to perform “Fuck That Police,” before they began to do just that. It very well could have been a theatrical move, but, along with tracks like “Why We Thugs,” it gave the mostly white crowd something to chew on all the same.Towards the end, Snoop, duke that he is, emerged on a bedazzled tricycle, eliciting by far the biggest reaction from the crowd. Considering many of the Coachella youth were born right around when NWA disbanded, that’s not a shocker.
But Snoop is also always effortlessly good: he hustles hard, a man who partakes in gimmicks yet remains immune to becoming one. He dropped in for “The Next Episode,” which I guess was kind of an apology for Dr. Dre’s no-show? Better suited was Cube and Snoop collab “Go to Church,” which, while an OK song, possessed a teeth-gnashing spirit and refreshingly terse, no-bullshit delivery during the set that felt in many ways like more of an NWA moment than any of the actual NWA songs.
But by the time the duo were encircling each other before sinister stained glass set pieces, a good half of the crowd had left. Once it became clear that a “real” NWA reunion wasn’t happening, there were any number of other rumored surprise attractions for them to try to catch—Skrillex popping out for Snails at the Sahara, Zedd bringing out Kesha, ZHU’s live set debut.If the whole thing felt a little underwhelming and like a missed opportunity, not to meniton a fake-out for Cube to draw a crowd and promote his film, we’ve brought it on ourselves. It’s hard to imagine that the swaths of leggy model model types bobbing their heads to outside the VIP are out there because they’ve been bumping “Straight Outta Compton” on the reg, or that much of the crowd throwing up their middle fingers for “Fuck Tha Police” have ever gotten more than a speeding ticket.
The marquee spectacle and surprise that kicked Coachella up to a new level of cultural relevance a few years ago—and helped distinguish and ease the transition to their new two-weekend format—has now become expectation. A straight main stage set isn’t good enough. Disclosure brought out no fewer than six surprise guests for their main stage debut prior to Ice Cube.The Coachella reunion and surprise has morphed into a means to any variety of ends, particularly as a draw to get a leg up on competing sets. For fans, it’s an accessory, less of a treat than another bit of cultural clout to disseminate on social media between fashion shots. But festivals like Coachella haven’t been about music for a long time. Everyone wants an “I was there” moment. As Cube departed the stage, throne gleaming in the strobes, it was a welcome reminder that it’s not always about being able to say you were there. Sometimes you just gotta be here for it, the best way you can.Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter.