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Festival Rap Kings Danny Brown And Vince Staples Hold Court At Pitchfork Fest

A funny thing happens when you become a critically acclaimed rapper bubbling just below the mainstream: You end up performing at seemingly every music festival on Earth. It happened to Danny Brown, the wide-eyed yapwer from Detroit, and then a few years later it happened to Vince Staples, the deadpan cynic from Long Beach. These guys have become such festival mainstays that if you haven’t booked at least one of them, you have to ask yourself whether you are actually throwing a music fest at all. The organizers of Pitchfork Music Festival avoided this existential crisis by scheduling them to play a couple hours apart on the same day.

Brown and Staples are very different performers, but they have followed a similar trajectory. After attracting attention from assorted tastemakers with his debut album The Hybrid, Brown rocketed to underground fame with XXX, an album that succeed at its goal of with the aim of “getting great reviews” and expanded his fan base well beyond the denizens of rap blogs with its mix of belligerent hardhead rap and EDM-infused bangers topped off with a voice like an air raid siren. He refined that approach on subsequent LPs Old and Atrocity Exhibition, further cementing his reputation as a thinking man’s hedonist who combats his deep depression with a wagging tongue, a killer record collection, and a small pharmacy’s worth of illicit substances.

At the time Brown was breaking out, Staples was still a mostly unknown teenage rapper with a fringe Odd Future affiliation. By the time he hit drinking age, though, he was developing into a cold, clinical technician who bolsters his observations about gangland life and America at large with an ear for forward-thinking production. Since 2014, each year has brought a new release that elevated his profile and spawned further critical hosannas: the searing Hell Can Wait EP, the dark and expansive debut album Summertime ’06, the electronic-leaning transitional Prima Donna EP, and this year’s futurist beatscape Big Fish Theory. The media spotlight that came along with those records helped Staples to develop a side hustle as a wry cultural commentator and online comedian of sorts, a guy who can crack wise about nearly anything while spouting actual wisdom about the serious topics of the day.

These guys have a fan base amongst rap purists, but they’ve found their way into the canon of, for lack of a better term, hipster music. That in turn has helped them gain entry into an even larger ecosystem of festival music, performing around the world on bills with indie rockers and folkies and psych bands and noise freaks and DJs. And so they’ve adapted their music to thrive in that environment, playing up the electronic elements that have long ruled the festival roost and choosing hip-hop beats that bleed over into a wider diaspora of party-rocking sounds. If you’ve ever wondered why Staples has been inching toward avant-garde club rap or why Brown continues to stock his albums with an abundance of EDM jams, you won’t wonder anymore after seeing them at a music festival. They’ve fine-tuned this shit for maximum impact. On Friday, it worked wonders.

First came Staples, performing alone on a cavernous, empty stage. All he needed was his beats and his stage presence to keep people’s attention. In contrast to his apparent disinterest at an intimate SXSW gig earlier this year, he was tuned in here. He stalked the stage, often hunched over, always rapping with intensity, rarely breaking his stoic expression. He stepped in time to the neck-snapping groove of “Norf Norf” and paused the burbling rave-rapper “BagBak” to lift his hands and spur the crowd on. The banter that used to characterize his stage show is mostly reserved for Twitter and video segments now. Staples lets his performance speak for itself, and whether or not you’re picking up on his lyrics, his music is going to sweep you into a frenzy.

Brown entered the same stage to the sound of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” two hours later, looking sharp as hell with a new haircut and a fresh outfit. Those eyes and that tongue were still wild, though, assuring us that we would not be getting a calmer or tamer Danny Brown. What followed was a dizzying array of road-tested hits: “Die Like A Rockstar,” “Monopoly,” “Side B (Dope Song),” “Smokin & Drinkin,” “Dip,” “25 Bucks,” “Pneumonia,” all of them performed with delight and excitement, Brown hopping and laughing and seemingly having a blast. He concluded with “Attak,” the Rustie collab that represents the peak of his EDM-rap powers. Brown’s setlist and the way he delivered it suggested a level of expertise borne from experience, but just because he has this down to a science doesn’t mean he’s any less of a live wire. He’s just figured out how to send that electricity coursing through a field of people, how to most effectively preside over this world where he’s received as both a jester and a king.