Dr. Dre & Friends’ Super Bowl Halftime Show Was A Blockbuster Victory-Lap Nostalgia Act

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Dr. Dre & Friends’ Super Bowl Halftime Show Was A Blockbuster Victory-Lap Nostalgia Act

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The most remarkable thing about last night’s Super Bowl Halftime Show was the fact that it happened at all. The other most remarkable thing about last night’s Super Bowl Halftime Show was the fact that it took that long to happen. At various points over the past three decades, virtually all of the principal performers in last night’s show — Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem — have been considered, on one level or another, dangerous or subversive forces within popular culture. That’s all over now. These people are all enshrined, beloved parts of our shared American life, and the NFL’s institutional recognition of their importance was a long time coming. It was also inevitable.

When Snoop Dogg rapped his part on “The Next Episode” at the beginning of last night’s Halftime Show, he walked into an all-white mocked-up living room, surrounded by musicians who looked like they were pantomiming even if they weren’t. Dr. Dre reportedly footed most of the bill for last night’s Halftime Show himself, paying something like $7 million out of pocket. True to his studio-perfectionist image, Dre crammed each moment full of detail. On the wall behind Snoop, for instance, there was a moving picture, an image of the 21-year-old Snoop morphing into a doberman pinscher and back again. That was taken from Snoop’s Fab 5 Freddy-directed video for “What’s My Name,” the first single from his 1993 debut album Doggystyle.

When that video came out, Snoop was facing a murder trial, charged with driving a car while his bodyguard shot and killed a rival gang member in West LA. A month after that video came out, Newsweek put Snoop Dogg on the cover, asking, “When Is Rap 2 Violent?” It’s not that Snoop Dogg is now above the law; a few days before the Super Bowl, a woman sued Snoop for sexual assault and battery. But the days of Snoop Dogg as a controversial figure are long over. He’s an American institution now. Everyone onstage last night is now an American institution.

Dr. Dre is now a Rock And Roll Hall Of Famer. It’s likely that Eminem will join him as an inductee later this year. Snoop Dogg is a constant presence in TV commercials. Kendrick Lamar has a Pulitzer. Even 50 Cent — last night’s one surprise-guest performer and probably the night’s most disreputable rapper — has reinvented himself as the Kevin Feige of a whole extended premium-cable drama universe. These people are all as established as you can be.

In the run-up to last night’s performance, the big question was what the NFL would allow to happen on its stage. According to a report that circulated on the day of the performance, the league had some notes. Eminem wanted to kneel onstage as a sign of solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. Certain lyrics about police weren’t going to fly, either, and the powers that be didn’t want Snoop to wear any gang colors. The ultimate resolution: Dre and his collaborators got away with pretty much everything they wanted.

Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” line about “we hate po-po” became “we hate [two drum hits],” but Dre got to say that he’s still not lovin’ police on “Still D.R.E.” Eminem knelt for a long time after “Lose Yourself,” and an NFL spokesperson quickly told The New York Times that the league knew he was going to do it. Snoop didn’t just wear all-blue; he Crip-walked and flashed a C at the camera. Snoop’s one big concession was that he didn’t smoke weed onstage; he only smoked weed immediately before going onstage.

A decade ago, the NFL lost its mind because M.I.A. showed a middle finger for a split-second during Madonna’s halftime show. Right now, there seems to be precious little moral outrage over Snoop putting on for gang culture on the world’s largest stage. The one attempt at pushback was baby right-wing pundit Charlie Kirk claiming that the show was “sexual anarchy,” presumably because 50 Cent was surrounded by sexy dancers, and Kirk’s tweet was promptly mocked into oblivion. In today’s climate, nobody wants to be the fuddy-duddy who clutches pearls over rap music.

In any case, last night’s performance didn’t exist to stoke outrage. That wasn’t the point. In a pre-show press conference, Dre told reporters that he and his friends would show “how professional we can be, how dope we can be and how exciting.” They definitely put on a display of professionalism. The Halftime Show crammed mini-sets from six different major figures into less than 15 minutes. Everything onscreen was sleek and choreographed, befitting Dre’s new tech-mogul persona. The whole elaborate stage set was blindingly white, like a new Apple product. The dancers all hit their marks with pinpoint precision, and so did the performers. Any of the assembled rappers could’ve easily filled a halftime show with hits, but they worked together as a unit, going hit-to-hit with stark and merciless efficiency.

Some of it was great. The night’s best performer was the sole non-rapper. Mary J. Blige is a veteran performer and an Oscar-nominated actor. If you’ve ever seen her live, then you already know that she can punch you right in your soul. Last night, with virtually zero warm-up, she went straight into the emotional theatrics, belting out “No More Drama” for maximum drama and then collapsing on the stage like James Brown falling to his knees. In her tiny little window of stage time, she killed it.

Kendrick Lamar, the youngest person on that stage, also killed it. Surrounded by dancers who were styled like the bad guys from Meteor Man, Kendrick ripped through brief renditions of “m.A.A.d. City” and “Alright,” projecting that same livewire intensity that he had when he was still playing clubs a decade ago. Kendrick has mostly removed himself from the rap conversation in recent years, which had the strange effect of making his older songs sound like oldies, not too different from “California Love” or “In Da Club.” Kendrick found legend status early, and maybe he just doesn’t want to compete in the present-day rap landscape anymore. Maybe he’s comfortable with his place in rap history alongside guys like Snoop Dogg and Eminem. It would be terribly sad to see Kendrick fully abdicate his place as a current artist, but if that’s what he wants, he’s earned it. Last night, he belonged.

The biggest surprise of last night was 50 Cent hanging from the ceiling, the way he did in the “In Da Club” video. That was a cute bit of stagecraft, but it also made it clear that 50 Cent is 46 years old and that he does not want to be hanging from ceilings these days. In the presence of Snoop Dogg and Mary J. Blige, people who resolutely refuse to age, 50’s brick-wall build was a rare reminder of the passage of time.

But 50 still fit into the efficient flow of the event. Everyone did. Last year, the Weeknd made the Super Bowl Halftime Show into a sweaty, theatrical display. It was still fully choreographed and packed full of hits, but the Weeknd made things weird. Dr. Dre and his collaborators did not. Dre started off the set on an all-white mixing board that looked like a spaceship’s control panel, and that’s how he treated the performance. It was a massive undertaking staged with pinpoint timing. Everything had to go off without a hitch, and everything did. Pepsi put its branding all over this music that once spoke to anger and violence and cultural instability, and the company got its money’s worth.

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Last night was not the first time that rappers have taken part in the Super Bowl Halftime Show. In 1998, Queen Latifah joined Boyz II Men and a group of Motown veterans. Nelly took part in two all-star halftime shows. Diddy, Nicki Minaj, LMFAO, Missy Elliott, Travis Scott, Big Boi, J Balvin, and Bad Bunny have all done that dance. Last night wasn’t even the first rap-centric Super Bowl Halftime Show. It’s completely forgotten now, but the Black Eyed Peas did the Halftime Show in 2011. BEP represent a completely different strain of rap than Dre and friends, but their origin stories aren’t all that different. Eazy-E first signed Will.I.Am to Ruthless Records in 1992, just one year after Suge Knight threatened Eazy into letting Dre leave the label. Rap music did not need institutional recognition from last night’s Super Bowl. It’s had that recognition for a long time.

Instead, last night’s Halftime Show might’ve worked primarily as a signal to those of us who grew up with that music. We’re old now. As a generational cohort, we’ve built up enough economic power that the NFL is now marketing directly to us, just as the league catered to boomers for years by booking Smokey Robinson and Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones. The rap culture war is over. We won. The victory feels hollow.

Last night’s Super Bowl commercials were all cryptocurrency and gambling-app ads. Some of them felt like they were made specifically for a future Adam McKay movie about the next financial collapse. Amidst all that, we also got CGI jungle animals advertising Doritos by beatboxing Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It.” They’ve been using rap to sell us stuff for so long that it now feels completely unremarkable, just as it feels unremarkable when Matt Damon and Larry David sell us fake internet money.

Rap music is still a living thing. Rap nostalgia can be a living thing, too; recent Verzuz battles have proven that old rappers can be just as resentful and cantankerous and chaotic and disrespectful as their younger peers. But that version of rap nostalgia could never play during the Super Bowl. Instead, we got the sleek, airless billionaire version — great artists performing great songs, with all context and pathos and danger removed. It was entertaining in the same way that the “Avengers assemble” moment in Endgame was entertaining. Rap music has successfully become airless blockbuster spectacle. Is that a win? And if so, why doesn’t it feel like a win?

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