The story of Nicki Minaj canceling her headline performance at Summer Jam—the radio station Hot 97′s 19th-annual, stadium-stuffing affirmation of hip-hop in New York—is head-spinningly inane, apparently the result of an ego clash between two people no one bought tickets to see: Hot 97 personality Peter Rosenberg, and Minaj’s label boss and past Summer Jam performer Lil Wayne. Some hours after Rosenberg—who, in February, called Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” “literally one of the most sell-out songs in hip-hop history”—re-insulted her on a small, outdoors stage, Wayne announced the cancellation in an oblique tweet. Nicki, the weirdo New Yorker who stole Summer Jam in 2010, as well as the main stage’s only scheduled female performer, tweeted in solidarity with Wayne, and that was the end of that.
For the 80,000-strong crowd at the Meadlowlands, Hot 97 never announced the cancellation, though Nicki was the presumed subject of a typically hot-blooded Funkmaster Flex rant as he DJed between performances. If you watch the Jumbotron video of his comments, interspersed with crowd shots as Flex cuts back and forth to Rihanna and Chris Brown’s “Birthday Cake” remix, of all songs to soundtrack decrying “commercial” artists, nobody in the crowd, appropriately, seems to give a shit. The hugely corporatized but celebratory, block-party-like atmosphere at Summer Jam, like an eight-hour contact high, transcends the tired distinction between pop and hip-hop, or wherever the genre line is supposed to be drawn. And that’s precisely why Rosenberg’s public disappointment at Minaj’s booking, and Wayne’s weirdly unfolding power-play, were so pointless: nobody cares as long as it’s fun, and with tens of thousands shouting along, of course it would’ve been. And without Minaj, Summer Jam’s run of male artists rapping about how tight and clean your pussy should be—subjects of separate ad-libs by Hot 97 DJ Jabba and Young Jeezy—felt especially lopsided.
Partly due to that imbalance, the night’s brightest light was a singing and impeccably-dressed Lauryn Hill, a surprise addition to the bill, appearing alongside Nas. Though at first it seemed Hill might’ve been on-hand to guest with Minaj, or that her appearance was a serendipitous solution born from the lineup’s turmoil, the Fugees icon said today that she and Minaj never planned to perform together, and that her set with Nas was scheduled all along. They did “If I Ruled the World” together, after Nas’ solo performance of the 1999, Puffy-assisted gem “Hate Me Now.” In between, in cropped flood pants, a pair of bright watermelon heels and a heavy crescent breastplate underneath her white blazer, Hill sang “Ready or Not” and rapped “Lost Ones.” For any 20-something high in the stands, this was like fan fiction, childhood dreams fulfilled. And that’s because, almost 20 years ago, songs like “Ready or Not,” which blended sounds of Caribbean and American rap and dance, appealed to an unexpectedly broad audience. Millions of kids became hip-hop fans in the ’90s because The Fugees made rap songs that didn’t adhere to the tight definition of the genre that Rosenberg champions, and music like theirs is why Hot 97 is able to fill a stadium for Summer Jam in the first place.
Everything blurs after a long day and five train transfers, but here are some memorable moments:
Waka Flocka, wearing a black-and-white softball jersey with three-quarter length sleeves and Whoop on the front, was the show’s lovable oddball, like an oversized kid who snuck on stage, grabbed the mic, and ran around so security couldn’t catch him. He was the first and only rapper to leave the stage to perform in the stands, climbing into the first few rows seemingly out of boredom. A Queens native, as he reminded the crowd to zero response, Waka peppered his performance with feedback-riddled monologues: “People say we can’t rap,” he said at one point. “That’s true. But when you done rapping, see who fucking with us, nigga.”
Big Sean seemed ubiquitous on stage, performing a long set and guesting on others. Midway through one of his songs, the camera pulled in close as he lifted his shirt and slid his hand down his boxers, as if to reveal he shaved his pubes. The image was blown up on Jumbotrons about 20-foot by 75. When the track was done, Sean brought his mom on stage to tell the crowd she loved New York, and then he took off his shirt. For his rendition of Kanye West’s “Mercy,” Sean was joined by Pusha T, who would’ve been in town this week anyway for his tragically cancelled concert with Future, and 2 Chainz, whose performance included a surprising number of pirouettes. Though 2 Chainz was listed in the main program between Tyga and Mavado (himself an unexplained no-show), he only appeared as a temporary partner during other people’s sets, like the fleeting embodiment of his seemingly endless string of on-record guest appearances.
French Montana was the evening’s best-dressed male, draped in an enormous, yellow Versace scarf tied around his head Babushka-style. Predictably, there was a ridiculous clump of people flanking the performance of his Summer Jam-referencing single, “Shot Caller,” but not one of them was the track’s floppy, preternaturally gifted producer, Harry Fraud. Diddy was spotted backstage, hanging out with Mase (who joined French Montana and Wale for his verse on the “Slight Work” remix), but didn’t bother to come out and dance.
Meek Mill and Rick Ross were joined by Maybach Music affiliates during their show-closing set, among them an awkwardly stoic and silent Stalley, hiding behind his beard, and Wale, wearing his second outfit of the night, topped off with a massive grin. But there were other noticeable absences. Where was Omarion, MMG’s unlikely R&B addition, one-fifth of the Self Made Vol. 2 poster that was plastered on every streetlight outside the venue? Or Gunplay, presumably still a part of the MMG roster but not a featured star of the upcoming comp? Onstage, Mill performed in front of them all, happily, finally an ordained powerhouse. Fans caught on the big screen tried to rap along with him but flubbed—he’s just too fast. Ross, looking proud but winded, his chest hanging loose under an indigo velvet hoodie, punctuated Mill’s sprints with his signature hunhs. As a duo, they make a great team.