Summer Jam, the crown jewel event of New York hip-hop, has faced skepticism in recent years. Any large-scale, annual event like it is bound to have a chatter of backlash—about the lineup, the venue, what it all means. Given the rise of trap music and global hip-hop sounds, with New York no longer at the center of the rap universe as it once was, Summer Jam is a tempting target for critique. It's hard to imagine a moment now that would feel as titanic as Jay Z—at his height—debuting "Takeover" and throwing a picture of Prodigy in dance clothes up on the event's big screen, at least until New York has another artist as big as Jay (right now, that would mean unseating Drake). It can't really fall on a live concert in New York to dictate the entire conversation of rap in its current minute-by-minute global news cycle. But at the same time that means it can be its own huge thing: New York's most important live music event.
Yesterday, there was an energy in the air in the Summer Jam parking lot that you won't find at any other time in New York—although it's one that exists in some form at concerts and festivals and live sports events everywhere. Something important happens when an event becomes something that people clearly look forward to every year, when it stands out as worth tailgating. From the ride over on the New Jersey Transit to standing in a line of thousands to get into the official festival grounds, there was a calming quality about collectively migrating to signify that summer has officially started in the city. That alone felt like something special and grounding: to realize that we all still have the need to congregate in such large numbers to feel the vibrations of music.
It didn't matter if the lineup had every charting artist that hip-hop is producing right now. What mattered was that it was a day people could care about because of the importance of the event itself. Everyone who loves music has their version of Summer Jam, whether it's a Phish concert or OVO Fest or Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic. These are places to celebrate. And if what you love to celebrate is New York hip-hop with a healthy dose of every song you've ever heard on the radio thrown in, there is no better place to be than Summer Jam.
Hot 97's annual concert is meant, above all, to be fun. Maybe you don't wake up every morning and think that it would make your day to see French Montana live, but it's a verifiable fact that when you see French Montana live it will be fun as hell—and indeed probably make your day. All it takes to have a good Summer Jam set is two or three good songs and a couple of famous friends. By this law, French Montana is already set for life on that stage. It will always be incredible to hear "Ain't Worried 'Bout Nothing" and "Pop That," until New York is nothing but an icy ruin in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. And even then, may the dulcet tones of Fat Joe performing "Lean Back" echo across the barren plains, providing their never-ending warmth. Moreover, speaking of laws, there should be one that says French Montana and A$AP Rocky perform for the people of New York every summer regardless of what else is on their schedule, and ideally Rocky will show up as he did last night, impeccably dressed in all white, wearing a graphic tee of Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
Joey Badass, too, needs a provision in some kind of contract that says he will perform wherever there's an outdoor event to be found so that he can impart positive Rap Hippie vibes to the world (side note, Joey's peace sign Summer Jam shirt and fluorescent yellow Off White athletic shorts was a strong contender for outfit of the day). Hopefully he or someone involved can also make sure Mobb Deep make it out onto the stage, which happened last night. If an act from New York has a song that you might have once ever heard in public, chances are you would be happy to hear them perform it in public, too, and there should be an event where that happens. Summer Jam is that event.
At last night's show, many sets were amazing just off of the nature of their sheer existence. Charly Black could have performed "Gyal You a Party Animal" 13 straight times without any disapproval. Trey Songz bringing out Tee Grizzley and then rapping every single word to "First Day Out" was an unexpected yet beautiful turn. A Chris Brown set can start feeling like one Billboard Hot 100 track melted together, but when he interrupts that by bringing out Playboi Carti and DMX—something no one on this Earth could predict—how can you not have a smile on your face? The bulk of Summer Jam went this way: some of hip-hop culture's most treasured artists casting unadulterated joy onto 50,000 people.
One moment felt like more than innocent bliss, though. Fat Joe and Remy Ma played "All The Way Up" which, if nothing else, felt like a proper prelude to something bigger. It wasn't clear what that would be. This, too, is part of Summer Jam's appeal: It still feels like a place where anything might happen. Jay Z's recent guerrilla promotion of his 4:44 film and the public skepticism that maybe an album could come with it might have prompted him to show up and perform his verse on the song's remix, but that felt like an extreme long shot. Instead, Joey Crack and Remy Ma did the more practical New York City OG move by bringing out Young M.A. and Cardi B to perform their tracks.
But a shift happened after that when Lil Kim came out to perform her "Quiet Storm (Remix)" verse. Like maybe this was about to be something major. By this time, Remy had transitioned into the orchestrator, and soon some of the most legendary women in rap history started to file onto stage. MC Lyte, Monie Love, Rah Digga, and The Lady of Rage popped out before the iconic saxophone riffs from Queen Latifah's "Unity" started blaring out of the speakers. Then the queen herself actually came out to perform it. In that moment, a set of Instagram videos from the night before seemed prophetic: Nicki Minaj had had a homecoming all-white party in NYC, which could make for the perfect set up. Queen Latifah was advocating togetherness on stage with an all-generation lineup of the most notable women of the genre behind her, Nicki at home in New York, and Remy previously mentioning that she was done with their beef.
That proved to be nothing more than a romantic fantasy, though. After Latifah finished filling our hearts with love and hope, the gunshot sounds from Remy Ma's "Shether" diss rang out, and she went on to perform the track while an animated Nicki was choked out on the Summer Jam screen. Still, it was possible that this was the kind of dramatic build up that makes WWE feuds so palatable. Had the whole beef been mustered to have this box office type of finale? Would these two juggernauts shake hands at the end of it all, presenting us with an all-star alliance? All that was flipped upside down with the final "Fuck you." The only way it could have been more iconic was if the whole festival ended with Remy's set-ending mic drop.
As it went on, it was clear that the focus of the night was not going to be about orchestrating some grand dramatic finale but rather about delivering a show to remember for its entertainment value. DJ Khaled wouldn't bring out Drake or Nicki in some plot twist; instead, he came onstage during Migos to lift a surely very confused Asahd up before the crowd like Simba in the Lion King. 2 Chainz showed up for a quick trip to church during "Good Drank." Desiigner's early set electrified a half-empty stadium, as the Brooklyn rapper worked the crowd with headliner-caliber intensity and delivered his vocals like he was fronting a death metal band. Doubts evaporated: Desiigner is rap's first metal artist. The night ended in a sing-along tribute to Biggie, with appearances from Faith Evans, Lil Kim, 112, Ma$e, and The Lox. It wasn't something to stop the presses over, exactly—the Remy Ma stuff was much more shareable on social media. But for capping off a triumphant night of New York hip-hop, where the sheer fact all of this was happening was the true celebration, what could make more sense?
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