“Who the fuck are you?” rapped Lil Uzi Vert, bathed in August twilight, adopting a serrated singsong cadence like Wiz Khalifa doing his best Young Thug. His audience shouted the phrase right back at him, but rest assured they were familiar. Many more word-for-word recitations followed, from “I stay on my Ps and my Qs” to “Hit it from the back, watch a nigga bless you.” Rocking a white long-sleeved Kanye West T-shirt, Uzi sprayed the crowd with champagne right before the thunderous drop from “WDYW” sent bass convulsions rippling across the parking lot.
The the internet-famous Philadelphia MC, who cracked XXL’s most recent Freshman Class, was on stage at the Breakaway Festival, a two-day music event in Columbus with a lineup heavy on hip-hop and EDM. Its crowd largely comprised white college students ready to party, and the performers obliged, uniformly bringing high-energy sets to the Ohio Expo Center’s indoor and outdoor stages. For college kids, any occasion is an excuse to turn up — the last weekend of August, which crosses the last glimmers of summer with the dawn of a new semester, certainly qualifies. Breakaway capitalized on that energy, providing a venue for vigorous grinding and N-word rapping and vintage basketball jersey wearing. (There were also a few soccer jerseys — Pogba, Ronaldo — as well as Dillon Francis deejaying in a J.T. Barrett Ohio State football jersey that he definitely owned before last week.)
Breakaway launched in 2013 at the 20,000-seat soccer temple now known as Mapfre Stadium, boasting a strong one-day lineup including Bassnectar, Kendrick Lamar, and a pre-Blurryface Twenty One Pilots, who were stadium status in Columbus years before they took over the rest of the world. That first edition of the fest felt like a minor success — and it inspired me to write a probably regrettable take about the decline of guitar rock — but Breakaway didn’t emerge again in 2014 or 2015. By early 2016 I’d given up hope of its return, so I was pleasantly surprised when it came charging back this year with an eye-popping headliner, Chance The Rapper, plus Rae Sremmurd, Young Thug, Ty Dolla $ign, Desiigner, D.R.A.M., and the aforementioned Lil Uzi Vert — acts that, given their respective cult fan bases and club hits, seemed to represent the future of the hip-hop mainstream.
My thought was to attend Breakaway — now smartly relocated to the Ohio Expo Center, adjacent to the soccer stadium and a lot easier to pack out — and find out if rap’s new generation could carry a music festival without help from established A-listers like Drake, Kanye, Kendrick, Future, and Jay Z. Would these relative newcomers, many of them chastised by the self-appointed gatekeepers of “real hip-hop,” sink or swim outside the internet enclaves from whence they emerged?
And that would have made sense if Breakaway was mainly a hip-hop festival, like it is in my imagination. As someone who cares about rap way more than electronic dance music, I assumed there were so many DJs padding out the lineup just because Breakaway promoter Prime Social Group specializes in EDM events — but no, canny observation and/or relentless eavesdropping confirmed that people were beyond excited for the likes of Alison Wonderland and Benny Benassi. I figured Friday’s crowd, inflated by burgeoning superstar Chance, would dwarf the turnout for Saturday — but no, an equally fervent audience gathered Saturday for a playbill topped by RL Grime. I was under the impression that EDM was dying — but no, its heartbeat pounded loud and clear all weekend: untz, untz, untz, untz, untz.
Even many of the rap sets I witnessed throughout my six or seven hours at the festival played more like DJ gigs. Rap classicist punching bags Rae Sremmurd, for instance, did more actual rapping than you often see at fests, but the distinctive hooks on hits like “Look Alive” and “Black Beatles” were mostly pumped in from the recordings, leaving Swae Lee available to hold an array of props not limited to a pineapple, a cordless phone, and a giant inflatable swan. Slim Jxmmi mostly stalked the stage with a bottle of liquor, scowling, his presence more physical than verbal. And it wasn’t until the festival environment that I realized how smoothly Mike Will Made It’s beats from SremmLife and especially SremmLife 2 slide into a dance music context, not unlike the club hits that put SremmLife 2 collaborator Juicy J on the Breakaway stage three years ago. Rae Sremmurd entered the stage proclaiming, “This is how you start a party,” and, yeah.
Desiigner was even less concerned with making words come out of his mouth. If you think his recordings bite shamelessly from Future, wait until you see how much his live show takes from Travis Scott. In the Saturday afternoon heat, duder honestly communicated more with his wild eyes than his microphone, incessantly jumping at the front of the stage to rile up the people while his hypeman stood by handling the lyrics. If that seems like something less than a performance, well, it’s more engaging than the light aerobics Dillon Francis offered Friday at nightfall, and at least Desiigner has some memorable songs to his name (all of which he conveniently stacked at the beginning of his set, allowing me to retreat to the air-conditioned indoor stage for a while). I sadly wasn’t able to be there for Young Thug, Ty Dolla $ign, or D.R.A.M. — three of the most fascinating creative forces in hip-hop today — but having seen all three artists in recent years, I’m confident they did not significantly diverge from the digital party vibe.
As usual, the major outlier was Chance. Whereas the rest of the rap party-starters blended more or less seamlessly with all the EDM, the Coloring Book prodigy brought his band, the Social Experiment, and juked across genre for 75 jubilant minutes. They waited almost half the set to perform anything from 2016’s biggest (and, arguably, best) mixtape, opting for a run through Surf and Acid Rap highlights plus Chance’s two finest guest spots, “Baby Blue” and “Ultralight Beam” — two very different songs that elicit one extremely similar full-body tingle. With his familiar grin, he reminded us, “Everybody’s somebody’s everything.” In a characteristic fit of yelps, rasps, and impassioned ad-libs, he assured us, “I’ve got the juice!”
As if to affirm the latter statement, when they finally got around to the Coloring Book material, they blew through presumptive Song Of The Summer “No Problem” first and it somehow wasn’t all falling action from there. We still had “All We Got” and “Summer Friends” and “Blessings” and “All Night” and “Mixtape” to look forward to, all before the gospel preacher inside Chance took over and the “Blessings” reprise posed the question, “Are you ready for your blessing? Are you ready for your miracle?” Joyous encore selections “Angel” and “Sunday Candy” functioned as the answer to each respective question.
Given his rapidly expanding profile, Chance is bound to inspire an army of imitators. And considering how many kindred spirits are breaking out of Chicago right now, and the way all-out entertainer Anderson .Paak is taking off like a whirlwind, the next next movement might already be underway. At Breakway, though, Chance presented a major contrast to hip-hop’s other rising stars, both sonically and thematically. It’s not that he avoids talk of sex and drugs and all-night parties; that’s all there on Coloring Book alongside God and family and community action. But he’s delivering a different kind of turn-up, channeling a more organic palette of sounds while tapping into a level of depth and nuance that most of his contemporaries aren’t even attempting.
That’s not to diminish the innovation many of the other Breakaway performers are bringing to rap: Rae Sremmurd, D.R.A.M., and especially Young Thug are breaths of fresh air in their own way. There’s a vibrant creative energy coursing through the genre that can’t honestly be denied by even the staunchest Illmatic devotees. In the context of an EDM-heavy festival, though, it was fascinating to witness a handful of hip-hop’s brightest young stars merging with the glow of a DJ’s high-tech video display.
Rap started out as a sort of dance party accessory, less an art form than a way for MCs to hype up an audience while a DJ dropped beats. Stylistic galaxies have unfurled in all directions since then, yet in practice, the action on the Breakaway stages didn’t seem so far removed from from Kool Herc’s Bronx big bang. In that way, at least, these festival kids are more in touch with hip-hop’s roots than the people whose Timberlands are stuck in 1994.