Super Bowl halftime show review: A hip-hop family affair that was exhilarating and long overdue
Forty-four Grammys. Twenty-two No. 1 Billboard albums. An actual Pulitzer. Has the NFL ever welcomed this much talent onto one stage? Sunday night, for the first time, the Super Bowl halftime show placed hip-hop front and center, inviting five icons — Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige. Eminem, and Kendrick Lamar — to perform their hits for an expected audience of 100 million. Considering that hip-hop has dominated the charts for 20 years, mounting a halftime spectacle centered around the genre now feels woefully overdue. It also feels pointed.
While the Super Bowl has featured its fair share of hip-hop artists, they've always played second fiddle to safer, more palatable pop and rock headliners: Nelly and Mary J. Blige cameoed in an 'N Sync- and Aerosmith-fronted show in 2001; Nelly and P. Diddy supported Kid Rock, Justin Timberlake, and Janet Jackson in 2004 (we all know how that evening went); Nicki Minaj lent Madonna some hard-edged cred in 2012; and Missy Elliott paired up with Katy Perry in 2015 (sure!).
But times have changed — and not just in terms of streaming numbers and record sales. As The New York Times reported this past week, 70 percent of NFL players are Black, but it has no Black owners. Meanwhile, this month, fired Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores sued the NFL for discriminating against him and other men of color in the hiring process.
In 2017, a year after former quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem in protest of police brutality, Jay-Z declined to participate in the Super Bowl and encouraged other artists to follow suit. Many continued to join him in solidarity of Kaepernick until the NFL acknowledged it had a big mess to clean up. For 2020's Super Bowl LIV, the league teamed with Jay-Z's entertainment agency, Roc Nation, and secured a diverse, formidable lineup — Jennifer Lopez, Shakira, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin — for a show that felt fresh, familiar, exciting, and relevant.
This year's spectacle at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., is the third in a row produced by Roc Nation (it recruited the Weeknd for its toned-down, pandemic-friendlier 2021 show), but it was by far its most anticipated, most charged, and most enjoyable. Enlisting West Coast legends Dr. Dre, Snoop, and Lamar turned out to be a canny move. A sense of home-turf pride and unity permeated the air even before Dre, serving as emcee, first appeared behind the elaborate set's faux mixing board. Looking like a white, pristine train, its carriage facades stripped away to reveal some of the hippest, most illustrious passengers ever, the set paid homage to Dre's nearby stomping grounds, Compton, boasting replicas of local favorites like Tam's Burgers and Dale's Donuts.
But what to expect from Dre, who co-founded N.W.A., a gangsta rap group who famously declared "F--- Tha Police" in one of their songs, and Lamar, whose lauded 2015 single "Alright" is now virtually synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement?
In the end, politics took a back seat to the party, which is probably just what the Dr. ordered. There were no stunts, no off-script detours. Eminem was the only musician to shout out Kaepernick, taking a knee to conclude a rousing rendition of his Oscar-winning barn burner "Lose Yourself." After the show, an NFL spokesperson reportedly said organizers knew he would do so. (Progress or acquiescence?) Lamar performed "Alright," but he seemed to scrub its classic line "po-po wanna kill us dead in the street for sure." Dre did get away with the lyrics "still not loving police," from his song "Still D.R.E.," but they arrived at the show's finale, after five hip-hop titans — plus surprise guest 50 Cent — had already served up 30 years' worth of classics. We were all lost in a glorious haze of nostalgia by then.
Which is another reason the show worked so well. No one tried to sell us on new material (though Blige could easily have slipped in "Amazing," from her very solid just-released album, Good Morning Gorgeous). It was hit after hair-raising hit, flyly stitched together like that insane blue-and-pink paisley sweatsuit number Snoop sported, the pattern of which I want plastered all over my bathroom immediately.
Snoop and Dre kicked off the proceedings with "The Next Episode," Snoop's delivery as artless and sinewy as ever, before transitioning into the late 2Pac's "California Love," a Dre-produced cut that name-checks both Inglewood and Compton. Then the camera panned to the unannounced 50 Cent, dropping upside down from the ceiling above a cluster of writhing lady dancers, looking like some horny bat, before launching into a slightly tepid performance of "In Da Club," another Dre production. (It was the low point of the set, but still good fun.)
And then came Mary. Maybe it's because she was the only artist who actually sang. Maybe it's because she looked like a disco ball had shattered all over her and all she could do was belt about the glamorous pain of it all. Maybe it's because she chose to pull "Family Affair" (her first No. 1 single, another Dre-produced hit) and "No More Drama" out of the sacred vault of Great Diva Anthems and then literally collapse to the ground afterwards like her two-punch medley had killed her just like it had killed all of us. Whatever it was, Blige reminded her rapt audience what strength, hard-won independence, and survival sound like. Her return couldn't come at a better time.
After Dre protégé Eminem's bracing "Lose Yourself" (in which he was backed by the Free Nationals and Anderson .Paak on drums) and Dre descendant Lamar's crisply stylized "Alright" (in which a militia of Black dancers emerged from cardboard boxes labeled "Dre Day," flaunting blond hair and beards and "Dre Day" sashes), all six performers united on the 50-yard line for Dre and Snoop's "Still D.R.E." It was a fitting coda to a watershed moment in Super Bowl history. Three decades on, it is still about Dre. In acknowledging his vast influence — and recognizing that hip-hop has become the music of the masses — the NLF seems to finally be catching up.
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