Swimming Pools (Drank Rum): Kendrick Lamar Plays The Bacardi Triangle

In this line of work, every now and then you find yourself in some strange places. Working in the music media, you wind up at plenty of secret shows or one-offs in NYC, and it’s all pretty great usually. Other times, someone invites you to a three day event Bacardi’s throwing at a resort in Puerto Rico. And then you find yourself on a deck overlooking ferries out in the water, house music echoing out from a handful of separate locations at all times, watching a bartender who looks like a cross between a bandit and the Dude with a wide-brimmed straw hat on and a cigarette hanging from his mouth line up six pineapples for piña coladas while periodically holding up the core as a mic and interviewing people in abrupt declarations of “And what do you think of Bacardi!?” or “How do you feel about rum and Puerto Rico?” (and never saying anything else, period). After a while of thinking about all the weird things you’re finding yourself experiencing, you might then wind up wondering, David Byrne-style but in a much less-aggrieved or anxious tone, “This is not my beautiful house,” “This is not my beautiful wife,” etc. Or, at least, that’s where my mind wanders.

The event in question was called Bacardi Triangle, billed as such for the whole “we’re going to throw a concert in the Bermuda Triangle” element of this plan. Before we got there last week, I assumed that three nights and three artists automatically equaled three nights of music, but as it turns out Calvin Harris, Ellie Goulding, and Kendrick Lamar were in fact slated to share a bill on Saturday, the final night. The preceding two were set aside as time to go party as much as you wanted to. When we arrived at the resort, the powers that be had already turned the ignition on that side of things. A phalanx of employees in Bacardi t-shirts greeted us, waving us through to the check-in line past the first of an endless army of DJs and other Bacardi t-shirted employees holding trays of some sort of Bacardi mixed drink that looked like blue Gatorade. Before walking in, I stopped at a railing and surveyed the resort spreading out down the hill below towards the water: there were a lot of pools, a lot of people with drinks in their hands, and a lot of the big triangle symbol Bacardi had adopted for this event. One stuck out in particular — a large glowing triangle overseeing a DJ booth that itself oversaw the pool, throwing colors through the water. One new acquaintance I made during the weekend sardonically remarked that she felt, between the preponderance of the big Bacardi Triangle sigil and all that, like she was being welcome into some kind of cult. If you’re not a rum or EDM enthusiast, it could definitely skew towards overwhelming.

There were supposedly 1,862 attendees involved — a nod to the year in which Bacardi was founded — and the idea was to have a mix of media, contest winners, and invited guests, all staying at a rented out resort. It might be partially due to the sprawl of the El Conquistador and the particular building/level I was staying in, but I managed to meet only two contest winners in three days. Meanwhile, we approached nearly SXSW-levels of “Spring Break for music writers” business, as I started to see a ton of people I knew from other media outlets in NYC. For much of the weekend, I talked to other writers, or I talked to marketing people. (There were a lot of people there who worked in marketing, in some capacity.)

As far as I can tell, everyone passed out pretty early on Thursday, given most of us had woken up at 3 or 4 AM to catch our flights. On Friday, there was a big Halloween party held down on the resort’s lowest level. You had to take a rail car down the side of the hill and walk down the marina until you hit an area they refer to as the water park. There were, as ever, DJs. (Beyond the three headliners, there was actually technically a lineup of DJs provided, though it all kind of blurred into one mass in my head given that it was always just sort of there, in the air, no matter what part of the resort you were in or at what time.) Apparently Lamar showed up as Black Jesus and Goulding was there, too (not in a Native American headdress), but I missed them.

On Saturday, the main event started up around 5 or 6 in the evening, when ferries began leaving the marina to take attendees to Palomino Island, a private island about a 7-10 minute ride away and leased by the resort. Apparently, large parts of the Pirates Of The Caribbean movies were filmed there. By the time I made it over there it was so dark that I wasn’t able to explore it very much. There were a bunch of bars, a buffet set up in the shadows in a clearing between the beach and some foliage, and a giant Bacardi Triangle stage glowing out over all of it.

Goulding’s set skewed towards the more uptempo material in her catalog, given the setting. Earlier on, there were a bunch of boats docked nearby blasting house music loud enough to actually drown Goulding out, but she’d hit her stride more by the end. “Lights” sounded great, and was followed by a few more hits before she yielded the stage to Lamar. Seeing K.Dot was, for me, a chance to rectify a past mistake: I’d had one chance to see him in the past, opening on the Yeezus tour, and because it was one of those “No, the show really does start at the time it says on the ticket” situations, I walked in halfway through his set and then spent that remaining half really disappointed with myself. This time around, there was also the hope that we’d hear new material debuted. The latter part didn’t happen, with Lamar primarily sticking to the heavy hitters from Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. “Backseat Freestyle,” the title track, and “Swimming Pools (Drank)” were all absolute monsters live. He closed with “i,” which came off like a sunrise when juxtaposed directly next to the much darker material from Good Kid. During his set, I leaned against the rail of the sound booth back in the crowd so I could look out at everyone. A group of Puerto Rican girls danced in bikinis to my side, which caught the eye of a cameraman documenting the whole thing for Bacardi. He walked behind them and crouched so that his lens was positioned so that, I’d imagine, the end result is going to show them exclusively waist-down. The man in the sound-booth shook his head in unsurprised disbelief, laughed, and said something like “That guy knows exactly what he’s looking for.”

For me and most of the people I talked to, Lamar was the primary draw of the event, but Calvin Harris was positioned as the biggest name, between being the headliner of the whole night and reportedly being paid a million dollars to be there. I was a little EDM’d out at this point though, so after a few minutes I went off to the side and laid down in the grass and stared at the sky, because you can see a lot more sky in Puerto Rico than in New York.

After the return ferry ride, I went up to the main building with some new and old writer friends. We went to get some pizza on an outdoor terrace, as people dispersed towards the after-party (located on a semi-outdoor deck on the main building’s second floor and dubbed “The Edge”) or one of the pools. That pizza took a very long time; long enough that by the time we finally got it and finished eating, we were thoroughly in the early hours of the morning and there didn’t feel like much reason to go to sleep. After a rail car ride back down to my level of the resort, I hung around a now eerily quiet pool and watched the sun begin to rise over the sea, which is definitely a thing you should do if you ever find yourself confronted with that opportunity.

As it goes with these things, the morning after felt like waking up from one long, collective dream that was quickly ceding into intangibility. Those Bacardi Triangles still stood over the pools, but were now silent and unlit, like they were waiting to become some mysterious Caribbean ruins. EDM had been replaced with the more typical resort muzak, as had the constant loop of Kendrick songs I’d kept encountering in the lobby. On my way out, I passed a mother pushing a stroller with another toddler tagging along behind. He stopped and looked at me, seeming confused. He was the first kid I’d seen in days, a sudden reminder of real life. I probably looked confused, too.