The whispers at South By Southwest began early Thursday afternoon: Something big was coming to the Fader Fort. The headlining slot was reserved for “Mike Will Made It and Friends,” and most had assumed that the “Friends” who would join the hit-making producer on stage would primarily be members of his label, including the already-taking-over-SXSW duo Rae Sremmurd. It turned out that Mike had a few tricks up his sleeve: not only did he bring out everybody’s favorite rap goofball Riff Raff, he also welcomed Future to the stage for a handful of songs.
And then there was Miley. Decked out in a sparkly ensemble that stood in stark contrast to the griminess on the rest of the stage, Miley Cyrus belted out her hit “We Can’t Stop” (which was produced by Mike Will Made It) and also traded some verses with Slim Jimmy and Swae Lee of Rae Sremmurd, creating a Tumblr-era pop supergroup. Cyrus stood out, but she also verified that Slim and Swae are proper stars, as they grooved confidently next to the world-conquering Miley.
The rest of Mike Will’s set was hit and miss and often chaotic, though it was impressively kinetic for its entire 40-minute duration. Future spent the most time on stage, blasting through selections from the more guttural portion of his catalogue, including the gurgling banger “Move That Dope.” After announcing, “I’m drunk as f—,” Mike introduced a few new members of the Ear Drummers Records roster, kicking things off with some contributions from the Atlanta combo Two-9, who operate in the same chest-thumping idiom as Rae Sremmurd. It was hard to tell whether their tracks will have legs, but they do perform with the same unbridled aggression and sell their lines with an undeniably fascinating charm. Perhaps the most welcome surprise of the evening (after Miley, of course) was Riff Raff, who slid on stage to lay down his verses on the infectious “Choppin’ Blades.” Clad in the same goofy hat he wears in the video, Riff Raff added another piece of evidence in the case for him not just being a self-aware novelty, but a transcendent, alarmingly talented novelty.
Before Cyrus changed the narrative of the day, the biggest surprise coming out of the Fader Fort was the not-particularly-shocking-but-still-welcome appearance by Raekwon during fellow Wu-Tang stablemate Ghostface Killah’s early evening set with the modern jazz combo BADBADNOTGOOD (with whom Ghost just released the excellent album Sour Soul). The show began with some particularly aggressive grooves from BADBADNOTGOOD, who look like a middle school stage band but pack quite a bit of punch when they’re in the pocket. Ghostface joined them a few minutes in, ripping through some choice cuts from Sour Soul. He is an impressive and intense performer with a loopy, arresting presence, but Ghost could only do so much to impress the crowd with material that is so new. That’s when he welcomed Raekwon, and the mood shifted. BADBADNOTGOOD started laying down live instrumental variations on old Wu-Tang tracks, and Ghost and Rae ripped into the classic “C.R.E.A.M.” before paying their respects to fallen comrade Ol Dirty Bastard with a run through “Shimmy Shimmy Ya.” The crowd was, as they say, turnt.
They stayed that way for Jack Antonoff’s band Bleachers, who slipped in for a quick set just before Mike Will Made It brought 43 of his closest friends on stage. I saw Bleachers for the first time almost exactly a year ago at the 2014 version of SXSW. They played in the early afternoon, and even though Antonoff had already amassed plenty of experience and success as a member of fun., the performance still seemed tentative, as though he was still getting used to running his own show after ceding the spotlight to Nate Ruess for a few years. One year later, Bleachers has completely outgrown SXSW—they could easily be headlining big theaters, and they’ve got the presentation to match. The songs from the band’s debut Strange Desire sound huge and cinematic, with gigantic, all-encompassing choruses (this is especially true of “Wild Heart” and “Shadow”). Last year, “I Wanna Get Better” had just been unveiled as Strange Desire’s first single when Bleachers played SXSW, and it came across as somewhat perfunctory. Twelve months on, it has blossomed into a proper set-closing anthem, and even the people just hanging around in between Ghostface and Mike Will were seduced into screaming the chorus by show’s end.
The other big highlight from the Fader Fort on Thursday afternoon was Wolf Alice, a British quartet led by a force of nature named Ellie Roswell. Their full-length debut My Love Is Cool isn’t out until June, but I’m already obsessed with their sound, which crunches and glides like post-grunge alt-rock—they would not have sounded out of place on modern rock radio in between Veruca Salt and Hole jams in 1996 (particularly that year, since much of what Wolf Alice played recalls the polished noise of Hole’s Celebrity Skin and Veruca Salt’s Eight Arms to Hold You). Roswell has a lovely, dynamic voice capable of a coo and a bellow, she marries melody and drone with aplomb, and she’s into puns. Between Roswell, the accelerating Courtney Barnett, the tough Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee, and the still-capable-of-surprise Cyrus, most of the headlines at this SXSW belong to the double-x chromosomed.