They call it the Budweiser Made in America festival, but everybody knows that the two-day gathering that's taken place on the Ben Franklin Parkway in the last half dozen years is really Jay-Z's Made in America.
But since he headlined the event's 2012 debut, the rapper born Shawn Carter has presided over rather than performed at the downtown Philadelphia festival that is synonymous and synergistic with his brand.
The festival headliner hit that stage at 9:40 p.m., dressed in a white hoodie — hip-hop gear rather than businessman's threads — and immediately promised the assembled crowd, "Oh, it's gonna be a special night, Philly."
Clearly juiced to be onstage, he dipped into his new 4:44 early on, but fired up the crowd by quickly digging into his deep catalog with "No Church in the Wild," from his 2011 Kanye West collabo Watch the Throne; "Public Service Announcement" ("My name is HOV!") from 2003's The Black Album, and "(Ain't No Love) Heart of the City," the Bobby "Blue" Bland-sampling slice of hip-hop soul from 2001's The Blueprint that references former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham.
After "Marcy Me," a sentimental reminiscence from 4:44 about the Brooklyn housing projects he grew up in, Jay gave a shout-out to the city that is the sole site of his festival, after its expansion to Los Angeles in 2015 for one year didn't take.
"Philadelphia, we appreciate all the hospitality you always show us New Yorkers," he said. "This is our sixth year doing this. This is my favorite festival in the whole wide world." (Well, it would be, wouldn't it?)
Throughout the set he continued to sprinkle songs from 4:44 in, such as "The Story Of O.J.," an intelligent consideration of America's seemingly unbridgeable racial divide, amidst runs of hits like "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," and "On The The Next One." Those songs and others like "Big Pimpin'," and "99 Problems" have burrowed their way into multiple generations of hip-hop fans' DNA, and to watch Jay-Z invite the crowd into their performance is to witness a master at work.
A message to flood victims in Texas — "We hope you can hear us, Houston you in our prayers, we with you H-town" — was followed by by the rapper encouraging the cored to sing "Happy Birthday" to his wife Beyoncé Knowles, who turns 36 on Monday (the crowd sang both the traditional and Stevie Wonder versions). He then closed the first part of his set by dedicating a song to late Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington, the leader of the band with whom Jay-Z recorded a rap-rock album, Collision Course, in 2004.
After the stage main stage went dark and the show appeared to be over – and the crowd began to exit – the festival headline then reappeared, surpassing the crowd on the secondary Liberty stage. He brought Meek Mill, who had been spotted in the VIP area earlier, up to spit the Philly rapper's "Dream and Nightmares," and continued with a short set intended for "Day One" old head fans that included "Money Ain't A Thang," a 1998 hit for Jermaine Dupri Jay-Z guested on.
And then, he was out… or was he? The crowd became discombobulated again when Jay-Z's voice was heard once more time, but this time it was simply reciting a poem titled "Dream On," that sums up how Horatio Alger from the hood ethos. And with that, Made in America 6.0 was done.
But even the great expectation of seeing MIA's headliner — and the day's vastly improved weather — made for bigger crowds and brighter moods on the Parkway on Sunday, a day in which the quality of the performances varied wildly, from acts such as Philadelphia quartet Japanese Breakfast (thumbs up) to EDM-pop duo The Chainsmokers (thumbs down), and from which combative political remarks were heard from the stage.
Loudest and most Philadelphia-focused were the words of Run the Jewels rapper Killer Mike — last name: Render — who dedicated the hard hitting hip-hop group's song "Lie, Cheat, Steal" to John McNesby, president of Philadelphia's Fraternal Order of Police. Render explained the dedication by citing McNesby comparing Black Lives Matter to a terrorist group last July. Later in the set, the interracial duo, which also includes rapper-producer El-P, dedicated "Down" to the Texas flood victims of Harvey and urged all disaster sufferers to "keep ya head up."
Was this this messiest, muddiest Made in America ever?
For sure, with Saturday's heavy rains leaving behind a gloppy quagmire of muck that made it an adventure trying to move between stages. But Made in America's urban setting also worked in its favor: Mud and music festivals go together like iconic images from Woodstock, and most modern, oversized musical gatherings are staged in giant grassy fields. Despite the hellacious amount of rain that fell on Saturday, the site was in fairly good shape on Sunday, and added entertainment value was gained in watching inebriated fest-goers trying to negotiate their way through the squishy spots without going splat.
Some 57,000 people were there Saturday, 61,000 on Sunday.
The lack of a serious rock act anywhere near the top of the bill at this year's festival was most painfully felt during Sunday evening's set by the flimsy EDM-pop duo The Chainsmokers.
On Saturday night, the penultimate main stage spot was handled by Solange, an R&B artist of substance who made sense musically with headliner-to-come J. Cole.
The Chainsmokers are certainly popular enough: They've scored a steady stream of hits since first striking gold with the novelties "#Selfie" and "Kanye," and the duo of Andrew Taggart and Alex Pall have continued to knock out chart toppers on their 2017 album Memories… Do Not Open, even attracting such big name collaborators as Coldplay's Chris Martin on the not-half-bad "Something Like This." And now, they're playing near-headlining spots at major festivals despite being awkward stage performers with little experience under their belts.
Alas, Martin, whose band did a fine job of closing out Made in America last year, did not drop in for a cameo at his friend Jay's fest this time around (though his recorded voice was heard on the MIA version of The Chainsmokers' "Something," and it was most welcome). And if you think Martin is a singer who errs on the side of mild, he sounds downright ferocious compared with the character-less vocalist that Taggart is.
Most Chainsmokers hits are semi-catchy pop songs dressed up in gimmicky flourishes, with guest vocalists such as Halsey or Daya providing a modicum of personality. When Taggart is left to his own devices, though, strumming a guitar and serenading the crowd on such banalities as "Young," he seems hopelessly out of his depth, and at that point, you're eager to hear the group turn up the volume on the EDM cliches that they once parodied to provide him cover. The highlights of the Chainsmokers set? The snippet of "Gonna Fly Now" — aka the theme from Rocky — they busted out in desperation in the middle of the set. And the fireworks at the end.
Run the Jewels got political for their set, dedicating the track "Lie, Cheat, Steal" to John McNesby, president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police. "Lie, cheat, steal, kill, win — everybody's doing it," the song's hook goes. As Killer Mike, one half of the rap duo, explained, McNesby earned the dedication by comparing Black Lives Matter to a terrorist group in July last year. McNesby last week also called the group a "pack of wild animals" following a protest outside the Bustleton home of Officer Ryan Pownall. Pownall fatally shot David Jones in June.
That track was one of just a few from the group's Run the Jewels 2. Killer Mike and partner El-P mostly opted to play cuts from their new album, Run the Jewels 3, playing about half of the LP's 14 tracks, including hits "Talk to Me," "Legend Has It," and "Stay Gold."
It was an energetic set for the duo, who came to Made in America straight from Ireland. El-P claimed the two had not slept in roughly 24 hours prior to playing. But as Killer Mike put, they were ready.
El-P, meanwhile, told the crowd that he has "a lot of family in Philly" who came to the show and wanted to look good. He lead the crowd in a chant of "RTJ" in order "to make me look cool" in front of them.
Despite leaving the stage about five minutes early, Run the Jewels also managed to dedicate a second song in the set. This time, the people of Houston got a shoutout from Killer Mike, who dedicated "Down" (an RTJ 3 track) to those affected by Hurricane Harvey.
"Even birds with broken wings want to fly," he rapped to end the band's set.
Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson was also at Made in America, although as a spectator, not as an act.
He was dressed in his iconic blue vest and pants emblazoned with statistics about voter suppression and police involved shootings. "We carry this work wherever we go and this is my way of carrying it with me wherever we go."
Victoria Ruiz, the frontwoman of Providence, R.I.'s Downtown Boys, also refused to table the band's politics for their set. "This song is called 'Promissory Note,' " Ruiz said near the start of the band's set on the Tidal stage Sunday afternoon, explaining that people of color "need to stop being asked to light ourselves on fire so white supremacists can keep warm!"
The Downtown Boys' serious messaging started with Ruiz's choice of attire. She went for orange, in the form of ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, still without an NFL job after choosing to take a knee in protest during the National Anthem last season.
Leaning heavily on songs from their fiery new The Cost Of Living, the Boys, who named themselves after a Springsteen lyric, leaned into salvos like "A Wall," not mentioning the current president by name, refusing to accept limitation in life, whether that mean barriers that separate people or limitations you put on yourself. "A wall is just a wall," she sang. "And nothing more at all."
Caught the last minutes of the main stage set by Pusha T., the former member of the hip-hop duo The Clipse. Since that band's end, he has stayed busy, landing features on other rappers' records. One of those was Kanye West's 2012 hit "Mercy," and when the first sound of that was heard on Sunday, fans in the back started to bolt toward the stage. Was Yeezy in the house? Had Jay-Z and Kanye made up to the point that West would make a surprise appearance at MIA? Nope. But Pusha's version was a reminder of how great West's records sounded just a short time ago when he was in his prime.
Pusha T. was followed on the main stage by Little Dragon, the Swedish quartet fronted by singer Yukimi Nagano, who make delectable dance music. The interracial audience watching was getting ready to hunker down and wait for Jay-Z, swaying in time as they struck selfie poses, while the alt-pop cognoscenti sang along on songs from their new Season High.
21 Savage played a well-received set at the Liberty Stage — including Jay-Z and wife Beyonce who were seen backstage — throwing out a list of hits for fans that included such tracks as "Baby," "No Heart," and "X."
While the set drew mostly good responses from the crowd, Savage seemed somewhat tired or subdued as he starting performing. At one point, the Atlanta-born rapper decided the right side of the crowd was as lit as he wanted them to be, and told the rest of the audience to get themselves together.
"Man, you not turned up," one audience member nearby said in response. However, Savage gained more energy as he went, capping the set with his hit, "Bank Account."
Despite is his famous romantic connection to Philly native Amber Rose, the rapper made no mention of her during his performance. However, he did appear to be wearing the reported $50,000 promise ring the model recently gifted him.
Michelle Zauner had somewhere else she could have been on Sunday afternoon.
"I'm missing my 10-year high school reunion today," the artist who records as Japanese Breakfast said. "I think I made out better. I wrote on the Facebook page: Cannot attend: Performing at Jay-Z's music festival."
The Oregon-raised, Philadelphia-based Korean American songwriter and guitarist's new album, Soft Sounds From Another Planet, is one of 2017's best. Fronting her quartet on guitar, she focused on dreamy, jangly songs from it and last year's Psychopomp, both of which deal with grief over the death of her mother in 2014.