Hip-hop has plenty of incentives for artists – money, fame, command of a potent art form. But what are the incentives for fans at this year's Rock the Bells? Unexpectedly, it's less about discovery and more about dedication: staying put and paying attention.
The layout and popularity of this year's Rock the Bells seems designed to keep fans – once they get inside – in a kind of couch-lock at whatever stage they're interested in. The two side stages can be accessed only through a long, winding path at the San Manuel Amphitheatre. And if a popular artist is performing on the main stage, and you're rushing over to see it, guards often wouldn't let you re-enter except at the distant top lawn. Want to run buy a drink during a lull in Bone Thugs-N-Harmony's set? Enjoy standing in the back.
These logistics gave fans every reason to park it in a comfy seat at the main stage for much of the day – especially once the headliners and their more, shall we say, ephemeral guest stars rolled in. For their sundown set, a fully reunited Bone Thugs-N-Harmony (Layzie Bone performed as one-off but has left the group), sounded loose and spirited on early hits like "1st of Tha Month" and "Crossroads," but everyone was there for another guest star – a virtual set from Compton's Easy-E, who shepherded Bone Thugs and needed no introduction at this Southern California show on what would have been his 50th birthday.
Perhaps the novelty is less the second time, but a few details seemed off about the Easy-E projection. Maybe it was our vantage point from the back of the crowd, but he seemed demonstrably smaller than his mates onstage. And while the voice-acting (courtesy of Easy's son) was superb, the cameras never zoomed in on his face, and left Easy as a kind of generalized avatar of Compton rap. But hey, any occasion to see "Straight Outta Compton" with even a flicker of the original article is worth taking.
Another good reason to stay in your seat? Black Hippy, the Kendrick Lamar-lead quartet that's quickly becoming a gale force in its own right in L.A. hip-hop. Ab-Soul, ScHoolboy Q and Jay Rock have performed at Rock the Bells as a group, but strangely decided to divvy up their set into four individual performances. Maybe it's because Kendrick has a big live band the others didn't share, or maybe they wanted to highlight their individually rising careers. Either way, it was a bit of a comedown to see them slice up their sets instead of playing together. ScHoolboy Q had the hit of the warm-up with "Collard Greens," a bouncy and self-aware dive through consumption's glories and perils. But as he jokingly put it, "Kendrick Lamar is up next. I'm tried of that [guy] getting all the love."
And love he got. Lamar was obviously the night's true headliner, even when billed under the Black Hippy mantle and inexplicably before Kid Cudi on the bill. His expanded his act into an arena-sized live band, and even in a truncated set, his now-staple singles like "Swimming Pools (Drank)" already feel like era-defining tracks for this crowd. He drove the amphitheater into a frenzy while repeatedly growling the opening bars of "m.A.A.d. city," before the song finally burst into gangsta-riffing noir laced with death and escape. Lamar is a superstar, and looks to stay that way for a long time.
After a full day capped by Lamar, one was incentivized to start thinking about an exit, but if you were among the few thousand who made it over to Common's side-stage show, you got an unexpectedly rowdy set from the Chicago vet. It's easy to roll your eyes at Common's boho affectations and Gap ads, but the guy really can rap, and from his vintage-leaning earlier singles to the more experimental "Universal Mind Control," he played with the vigor of an underdog who knew this crowd has reasons to be elsewhere unless he claimed them.
Also worth a look was Chase & Status, the British electronic duo who in any other era would have had little crossover with a classic rap festival. But in the anything-goes 2013, a mix of drum-n-bass, dubstep and tweaky electronica makes perfect sense here, and it served as an upbeat, progressive palate cleanser for the day.