The final day of South By Southwest was briefly derailed by the rumor that Kanye West was in town and would appear somewhere as a surprise guest. That left hip-hop fans with a remarkable Sophie’s Choice scenario: Was it worth it to camp out over at the Fader Fort where West could possibly appear, or was it better to go all-in on J. Cole, who was guaranteed to appear across town at the Moody Theater? Those who chose the latter were the victors in more ways than one. Not only did they get the show they were promised (the surprise guests over at Fader were Travis Scott and Twista), but they also got an exceptional display of throwback hip-hop styles from a group of MCs seemingly seeking to reclaim rap from what Redman referred to as “turnt up music.”
There were a handful of narratives floating through this year’s SXSW festival, but one certainly was the struggle between camps for the soul of hip-hop. Rae Sremmurd played a ton of sets over the course of four days (I saw them play three separate times, and only one of those was on purpose), and their brand of Mike Will Made It-fueled aggression and adrenal hedonism was everywhere, both on stages and in the tracks dropped in between performances. But this was also a festival that featured the 43-year-old Snoop Dogg as its keynote speaker and found its largest and most prestigious venue—ACL Live at the Moody Theater—inhabited by the throwback-minded Wiz Khalifa (who headlined on Friday night) and J. Cole (who closed out the SXSW Takeover bill presented by New Era that also featured Redman, Joey Badass, Iamsu!, and G-Eazy).
That lineup spent the better part of six hours making a case for hip-hop as a means of more nuanced avenues of expression. As super thrilling as it was every time Rae Sremmurd belted out “No Type,” the permeation of that throbbing, pummeling style might have made some of the MCs at the Moody feel a little boxed out. Nobody made that clearer than Redman, who used his stage time to remind everybody of hip-hop’s ’90s golden age, when he just happened to have been a second-tier superstar. Red ordered his DJ to spin a handful of records from the era, including Biggie’s “Hypnotize” and Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck,” and then instructed his audience to shout out “F— you, Redman!” before launching into the low-self-esteem anthem “I’ll Bee Dat.” For a guy who always made a name for himself as being grimier than your average rapper, Red came across as a particularly polished veteran who had long ago developed enough of a sense of humor to allow him to roll with whatever came his way. That spirit came out when he asked the crowd to provide Method Man’s verse on their tag-team track “Da Rockwilder,” and when it was clear that nobody was able to keep up, he mocked those pretending that they were hanging in. So Redman did what any MC would do in that scenario: He took ahold of his own verse and absolutely lit it on fire.
Joey Badass brought similar heat, but though he’s an exceptionally talented performer and lyrically insightful far beyond his 20 years, the distance between him and Redman was great. Still, backed by underrated producer Statik Selektah on the turntables, Badass added an extra blast of growling, guttural oomph to many of his songs, particularly the more refined tracks from his recently released solo album B4.DA.$$ (which, it did not occur to me until tonight, is meant to be pronounced Before The Money). Bay Area tongue twister Iamsu! also carried himself well, delivering elevated bangers and inviting Oakland icon Too Short out for a run through the high-energy anthem “Blow The Whistle.”
After a few songs from some of the recent signings to his label (Cozz was the only one who really stood out, as his snarling roughneckery stood in fascinating contrast to Cole’s backpacking ethos; also, “I Need That” is a total tsunami of a track), Cole wrapped up with a headlining set full of intricate raps and earnest philosophizing. I have never been 100 percent on board with Cole. He’s clearly a talented guy, and he is able to work with a variety of different producers and still sound like himself, which is easier said than done. Part of the reason I went to see him on Saturday night was because I wanted to feel what his super-fans experience when they listen to his records. I’m still not entirely convinced, but Cole’s talent continues to blossom, and he has an undeniable grasp on what his strengths are and how to use them to work a crowd into a frenzy. The people on the floor at the Moody Theater absolutely lost their minds. They weren’t just viscerally reacting the way they did when the a DJ queued up “Bugatti” in between sets. Rather, they seemed to be discovering new elements of J. Cole jams in real time, and any artist who manages to arouse that level of engagement and devotion in the listener can’t be bad in my book. If there’s one thing the SXSW Takeover drove home, it’s that hip-hop is such a huge tent now that there’s room for everybody whether you want to dissect Cole’s “Love Yourz” or you just want to bang around to “No Flex Zone.” I did both and walked out of Austin a happy fan.