PHILADELPHIA – Nearly two decades into his unparalleled rap career, Jay Z hasn’t abandoned his lofty ambitions.
In the last year, the hip-hop magnate (born Shawn Carter) jolted the album release model when he struck a multimillion-dollar deal with Samsung to issue his latest effort, “Magna Carta Holy Grail,” via smartphones, a move that instantly scored platinum status for the album.
He also packed stadiums on a summer tour with Justin Timberlake, casually added “sports agent” to his already weighty resume, and was named, along with superstar wife Beyoncé, music’s first billion-dollar couple, according to the International Business Times.
But Jay Z’s visions of pop cultural dominance are perhaps best realized in his two-day Budweiser Made In America festival.
For a second year, tens of thousands of attendees flocked to Philadelphia’s historic Benjamin Franklin Parkway over Labor Day weekend to cap the last days of summer with nonstop performers across the spectrum of pop, soul, rock, hip-hop and electronic music.
Over two days, the Jay Z-curated event crammed an impressive slew of acts including Nine Inch Nails, Phoenix, Kendrick Lamar, Public Enemy, Deadmau5, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Calvin Harris, Miguel, Queens of the Stone Age and, of course, Beyoncé.
Made In America has all of the trappings expected of a festival – blistering heat, swarming crowds, multiple stages, snarled lines for everything – only with acts handpicked by the multi-hyphenate rapper and extensively backed by a major sponsor.
The second year of Made in America attracted 60,000 fans per day (vs. 50,000 at last year’s inaugural outing) with tickets still available – and aggressively scalped near the entrances -- for both.
Reports of incidents were virtually nonexistent (minus an arrest and heat-stricken festivalgoers needing medical assistance). It was a bright spot in a festival season that has been marred by fan deaths, including at Hard Summer in L.A. and New York’s Electric Zoo – which was shuttered a day early Sunday after two drug-related deaths.
With a bill that spanned a lush sampling of genres, the festival cemented itself as a worthy competitor to other big-ticket destination offerings out East like the Governors Ball, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. But there’s still work ahead for Jay Z and his pals at Budweiser.
For starters, an easier-to-traverse layout. With four stages, multiple pockets of food stands or trucks, themed lounge areas, a giant carnival swing and a beer vendor every 10 feet (seriously, it was easier to find than water), the festival’s location -– a tree-and-sculpture-adorned boulevard that’s the spine of Philadelphia’s museum row –- remained a congested, oft-snarled mess of bodies throughout both days.
The food stands that hugged the secondary Liberty Stage didn’t stand a chance to the massive crowds that gathered for Solange, Miguel and, especially, Calvin Harris on Saturday.
And zero overlap in schedules between acts on the main Rocky Stage, which was perched in front of the iconic steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, and the Liberty Stage led to a constant mad dash between the two areas.
Infrastructure aside, Jay Z curated a bill that allowed for a groove that never waned, despite the steaming heat that harshly pummeled crowds Saturday and Sunday.
On Saturday, L.A. sister trio Haim, British songstress Emile Sande and ASAP Rocky were charged with building grooves early in the day as the heat raged. But it was two vastly different rap acts that captured afternoon crowds.
The raw grit of rap veterans Public Enemy was heard loudly on the Rocky Stage. The famously outspoken group took the stage with some serious political fire Saturday as Flavor Flav and Chuck D pleaded for justice for slain teenager Trayvon Martin, spoke in support of convicted cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal and admonished Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett for school funding cuts as Philly residents roared in support.
But some of Public Enemy’s message was delivered to deaf ears as a swarm of the crowd rushed to the secondary stage for the bass-heavy, strip-club-ready stomp of 2 Chainz’s booming, hits-filled set.
Saturday also belonged to the thrilling grooves spun by French pop-rockers Phoenix on the mainstage ahead of Beyoncé’s closing set. And judging by the sea of bodies that spilled in every direction of the stage, no one who had a ticket missed the pop queen.
During a 90-minute set, Beyoncé shimmied through a truncated version of her current sold-out Mrs. Carter World Tour, complete with dazzling costume changes, big arena flair and fiery anthems, but still minus any new material -- or even an appearance from Mr. Carter, who was spotted taking in her set from the VIP area. Still, she dialed up enough sass and fierce footwork to move the tens of thousands of sweaty bodies who danced and sang along.
The groove stretched much deeper on Sunday, however, as crowds turned up early to pack Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Fitz & the Tantrums, Gaslight Anthem, Robert Delong and a surprise set from Waaves were among the afternoon offerings.
But the festival really heated up for the heady mix of genre-blurring soul from Solange and Miguel, a slew of hip-hop wordsmiths that stretched from stoner chill (Wiz Khalifa), indie outlier (Macklemore & Ryan Lewis) and West Coast revivalist (Kendrick Lamar) along with EDM king Calvin Harris. Both Harris and Lamar, who brought his Black Hippy brethren, attracted the day’s largest crowds.
Industrial rock veterans Nine Inch Nails anchored the final night and delivered the festival’s most mesmerizing and intense set -- despite attracting only a fraction of the crowd drawn by Beyoncé the night before (blame the effects of two full days of heat and tightly scheduled music).
The thinned-out crowd made getting a plum view of Trent Reznor and Co. remarkably easy -– a good thing considering NIN’s set was best enjoyed in the thick of its stomping, shout-along mosh of dedicated fans.
For 90 minutes, the black-clad Reznor ripped through a crushing, tightly packed set that previewed the band’s comeback disc, “Hesitation Marks.”
The frontman rarely came up for air as he dived between a drum machine and his microphone (guitars came later), his shadow bouncing on the walls of towering white panels behind him that shifted through the set to reveal throbbing graphics and bright lights as the songs grew angrier and more angst-ridden.
As a sweat-soaked Reznor led his band through the hit “Closer,” rumors flooded Twitter that Jay Z would make an appearance for a small set.
It didn’t happen. Jay was probably off somewhere dreaming up his next conquest.