SXSW 2013 Saturday: Justin Timberlake, Earl Sweatshirt, French Montana, More

Here it is, our last recap-post from last week in Austin. If you’re just getting caught up, you can dip back into Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. Otherwise, here now here is Tom going in on JT, Earl, and many more:

Earl Sweatshirt with Flying Lotus @ FADER Fort (FADER), 6:00PM

This was a weird one. Earl Sweatshirt, back from Samoan boarding school and playing what he called his biggest solo show ever, should be treated as a returning hero, and he clearly wanted to be treated as one, too. But almost all the songs we’ve heard from his forthcoming album Doris (“Chum” still chief among them) are intense and confused and introspective rap songs, not tracks that will necessarily fire up a giant tent full of people who have been baking in sun and downing free beers all day. The crowd’s reaction to Earl was subdued, possibly because of crowd indifference and possibly because people were actually trying to hear the words he was saying. Earl’s reaction to the crowd’s reaction was confused and awkward, and it sent him into an even more subdued place. Meanwhile, Flying Lotus, acting as Earl’s DJ and occasional hypeman (and emerging from behind his laptop to rip a surprisingly nasty verse) seemed to take the crowd’s mutedness personally. Old Earl friends Domo Genesis and Vince Staples showed up to help out, but a rumored Frank Ocean appearance never materialized, and Earl left the stage without doing a single one of his older ones — the songs, that is, that might have earned him the reaction he seemed to want. — Tom

Bun B @ FADER Fort (FADER), 7:30PM

A Bun B surprise set in Austin during SXSW, especially at the FADER Fort, is never quite going to be a surprise; these days, he lives for stuff like that. And this time around, weird sound issues did everything they could to remove the thunderous boom of Bun’s best tracks. But none of that mattered. A Texas rap crowd is always going to be overjoyed to see one of its greatest underground legends in the flesh, and songs like “Big Pimpin'” and “Int’l Players Anthem” are always going to kill, regardless of context. Bun’s set had nothing at stake, and it was maybe a bit perfunctory, but it was absolutely fun nonetheless. — Tom

French Montana @ FADER Fort (FADER), 8:00PM

Saturday night at the FADER Fort is traditionally the big surprise-guest night. And while it was obvious that nothing was going to top the previous night’s inexplicable, wonderful Afghan Whigs/Usher team-up, hopes were still high for some big names. French Montana is one of the reigning heroes of pop-friendly New York street-rap, but that doesn’t mean much in Texas. He does, however, have a ton of songs with many rap leading lights, and as he proved last night, he currently needs serious help from those friends if he’s going to make a habit of playing headlining shows. French brought a keyboardist and a drummer as well as a DJ, and it was immediately apparent that this was a bad idea; the new additions did nothing but suffocate French’s beats. And French himself is a mumbly, garbled rapper, especially live. On record, his stoned and low-key confidence is his greatest asset; live, it makes him look like a lump. And when French announced that he had special guests, I’m pretty sure not one single person expected (or hoped for) Macklemore, who charged out in a fringed jacket and a buttoned-up Western shirt, hook-singer Wanz in tow, to do all of “Thrift Shop.” Montana, who may never have been inside a thrift shop in his life, stood quietly off to the side and did not sing along. Later on, Diddy, who was more like it, did a couple of verses and radiated charisma all over the stage. He also had a weird moment, imploring the crowd to keep SXSW underground and then immediately performing “All About The Benjamins” like these weren’t the two most contradictory things he could possibly do. When all that was done, the two guests and French posed for a photo for French’s Instagram, asking the crowd to hold our hands in the sky for way too long. And then French’s band played an instrumental version of his new single “Freaks,” entirely without French. The entire thing was weird, it made no sense, and it mostly convinced me that French Montana won’t be a real A-list rap star anytime soon. This was probably not the idea. — Tom

Justin Timberlake @ MySpace bunker (MySpace), 12:00AM

Timberlake’s non-secret secret stop in Austin was merely one more stop in a meticulously planned-out pre-album charm offensive that started the moment he announced that he was about to announce something. His smaller set at MySpace’s packed-in makeshift venue came after Timberlake hosted the best Saturday Night Live in recent memory and spent an entire week on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. And plenty of things about the performance seemed hopelessly contrived. After all their dressed-up TV appearances, Timberlake’s band members were wearing casual clothes that looked just slightly costume-directed, and Timberlake himself wore one of those tuxedo-printed T-shirts; that thing was killing me all night. Timberlake dropped a bunch of motherfuckers, and that guy is never going to sound natural when he’s cussing. And all the arrangements of his newer songs switched things all around and prioritized, probably too much, that Timberlake and his band are real musicians for all the usual protest-too-much reasons. But with all that said: Holy fuck.

Timberlake remains an almost unbelievably talented and winning human being. His dance moves were fluid, his transitions already polished to perfection, and his voice showed no signs whatsoever of the reports of illness that have been dogging him lately. On just about every song, he’d hit some climactic falsetto run that would just leave me shaking my head. More importantly, the man has songs, and newer tracks like “Pusher Love Girl” and the still-boring “Suit & Tie” fit in surprisingly well with bulletproof older ones like “Cry Me A River” and “My Love.”

It’s Timberlake’s job, in part, to convince people like me of things like this, but he really did seem to be enjoying himself up there, telling meandering stories about ice cream purchases and trading dance steps with an enormous bass player who, in at least a couple of moments, seemed like he would outdo his boss. In a sly nod to his ongoing mini-tiff with Kanye West, he threw a few of Kanye’s bars from “Niggas In Paris” onto “Cry Me A River,” where they sat quite nicely. On other songs, he also added dashes of Juicy J’s “Bandz A Make Her Dance” and Trinidad James’s “All Gold Everything.” (Timberlake did bits of “All Gold Everything” twice; by all indications, he loves the shit out of that song.) A cover of INXS’s forever-great “Need You Tonight” drew more old-school boy-band screams than anything else Timberlake did all night. Timberlake’s still months away from touring behind his 20/20 Experience album, but he and his band have already figured out exactly what they’re going to do when the act hits the road. And while I don’t think this tour will match the dazzling precision-splendour of Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds tour (which rivals Kanye West’s Glow In The Dark tour as my greatest arena-show memory), it will still be some kind of amazing spectacle. It’s good to have this guy back doing music.