Two years ago at Powerhouse — the annual summer hip-hop concert presented by L.A.'s KPWR-FM (105.9), a.k.a. “Power 106" — the Compton rapper Problem performed on a small outdoor stage designed to showcase up-and-coming acts. In 2012 he made it inside for a guest appearance with Snoop Dogg. And at this year’s show, held Saturday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Problem had his own slot on the main stage, where he took the opportunity to recount that swift trajectory before delivering his verse from Wiz Khalifa’s “Bout Me.”
“Pedal to the metal, we flying,” he told the capacity crowd of about 18,000. “In the fast lane, yelling ‘Diamond!’”
Twenty-four months is more or less what passed for history at Powerhouse 2013, which in addition to Problem featured a cast of young MCs including Tyga, Big Sean, ASAP Rocky and Future and was headlined by Chris Brown, the pop-minded R&B singer. In the past, Powerhouse has traditionally teamed its latest-and-greatest with proven veterans, such as Jay-Z, DJ Quik and Ice Cube. (Snoop Dogg is a regular presence at the event.) Yet this year’s show went largely without grown-up supervision; the closest thing to an old-timer was the Game, who appeared during Tyga’s set.
That focus on newness is in keeping with the accelerating pace of hip-hop, which like all of pop culture has been quickened immeasurably by the Internet. Even the proven veterans are speeding up: Last week Jay-Z announced that he’ll release a new album in less than a month, and several hours before Powerhouse began Saturday, Nas triggered a commotion online by posting a song in response to a track on J. Cole’s latest record, which came out Tuesday.
But if Powerhouse was aligning itself with a principle of forward momentum — at least as that principle is manifest in the rap-radio mainstream — then it fared perhaps too well: Breathless yet static, the four-hour show chased a moment but didn’t quite capture it, with performances that seemed to evaporate even as they happened. None truly disappeared, of course: Power 106 streamed Saturday’s concert online, which in an era of Internet archiving means they’ll be with us in some form forever. But nothing happened at Powerhouse that I feel compelled to revisit.
One response to that might be, Who cares? Music that thrills on contact is no less valuable than music built to last (especially in a live setting), and Powerhouse offered several immediate eruptions of excitement, as when Future weed-whacked his way through the tangled rhythms of his song “Karate Chop” or when ASAP Rocky set off an arena-wide shout-along with an unprintably titled hit single from last year.
Big Sean was surprisingly strong too, performing in front of a large video screen flashing dramatic imagery, as well as a crew of hooded percussionists thumping electronic drums. Just six months ago, at Power 106’s Cali Christmas concert, the Detroit rapper seemed obnoxiously callow; here, though, his flair for irritation felt almost provocative as he pushed another song with an unprintable title to punishing club-music extremes.
Yet beyond those highlights, Powerhouse flattened out into a blur of forgettable beats and boasts. Tyga’s set was particularly inconsequential, with its charmless demands for sexual and chemical satisfaction; an unusually one-dimensional Game didn’t help. And though he danced well, Brown seemed only half-committed to his desultory closing performance, unmotivated either to embody the villain he sometimes appears determined to play or to defend himself as a troubled but essentially misunderstood man.
Even an unannounced appearance by the reliably arresting Nicki Minaj, who rapped in “Take It to the Head” and her own “Beez in the Trap,” felt like an opportunity squandered.
Maybe that’s looking at Powerhouse 2013 the wrong way: Certainly the deafening cheers that followed Minaj offstage signaled little disappointment that she’d failed to help Brown consolidate his complicated narrative. But as Problem’s earlier rundown of his previous appearances suggested, Powerhouse presents itself as a kingmaker, and this year’s edition — eyes fixed firmly on the future — made none.