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Bonnaroo Day 2: Forgive Kanye West vs. F–k Kanye West

We talk with fans on the prodigal god's return, and catch sets from Vampire Weekend, Danny Brown, Ice Cube, and Chance the Rapper.
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(Photo by Jason Shaltz)

(Photo by Jason Shaltz)

By Dan Weiss

So despite the immensely kind attitude, the hippie, DIY, nobody-stepping-on-each-others-toes thing at Bonnaroo, there is one thing everybody can’t agree on.

Islam, a 21-year-old Jamba Juice manager in Chicago, is here for the third year straight, but wasn’t here for Kanye West’s abysmal turn of events in 2008.

“I’ve heard both sides of it,” he says. “Kanye wanted to play a late-night set, and Bonnaroo was like cool, yeah, you can do that. But Pearl Jam was the headliner that time, and Bonnaroo has this rule where if you’re the last performer, you can play as long as you want, and they played an extra hour and a half. They got done at like 1:45 and his set was supposed to be at 2, so of course he’s gonna take his time coming out. So he came on really late, the sun was rising, everybody’s was pissed off as hell. So there’s bad vibes on both sides.”

We caught up with Islam because he’s wearing a t-shirt reading “Forgive Kanye,” and hadn’t even noticed his shoes. “I made it on the fly, and I bought these shoes to wreck and wrote ‘Jesus Walks’ on them. I was like, f–k it.”

He’s mostly here to see rock artists (The Avett Brothers, Jack White, Elton John, etc.) but he calls Kanye “probably my favorite hip-hop artist. And oh, Danny Brown is the s–t. I’m trying to catfish Danny Brown actually.”

Catfish him?

www.jasonshaltz.com(Photo by Jason Shaltz)

“He was supposed to play this set in Chicago, but I had work and couldn’t see it, so I was Tweeting him every single day like, ‘Come to Jamba Juice, I’ll hook you up Danny Brown!’ But he never responded to any of my tweets. And I was with this girl so I took her phone and I tweeted him the same thing I always tweet him…and then he went and followed her on twitter! I was like, ‘this is bulls–t!’ So next time he’s in Chicago I’m gonna have her DM him to meet up in an alley and I’m gonna come out and be like, ‘Bro…follow me on Twitter.’”

As it happens, we were heading to see Danny Brown that afternoon anyway, whose electric energy called up the hard-rock logos on his and his hypeman’s t-shirts: Guns ‘n’ Roses and AC/DC. Top that off with a black leather jacket and green-tinted hair and you have one of the only current rappers with interest in rock-like stardom. Brown never fails to deliver, and despite his many nuances, his festival sets are a barrage of bangers: “Smokin’ and Drinkin’,” “Dope Song,” “Monopoly,” “Kush Coma.” His signature goat-horns and tongue-out pose appeared just as often as you’d expect to see Gene Simmons’. And all of it was light on its feet and heavier than metal. There hasn’t been this many feel-good drug anthems in a promising rapper since vintage Cypress Hill.

www.jasonshaltz.com(Photo by Jason Shaltz)

We then caught up with Alex, a 21-year-old from St. Petersburg who works for a soccer team, because we took notice of the giant double-sided sign he was holding, with Kanye’s head on one side and Elton John’s on the other.

“The reactions we get really change depending on which face is facing where we’re walking,” Alex says. “If it’s Elton John, we get a lot of ‘Woooo!’ and ‘Yeah, Elton!’ but if it’s Kanye…some people like Kanye, but we’ve gotten a lot of ‘Boooo,’ a lot of ‘F–k Kanye.’ A lot.”

But where does he stand on the guy? “I like his music a lot, I grew up on it, I’ve been a fan since College Dropout. Some of the first rap I listened to—”

At this point he’s interrupted by a guy who walked up to my tape recorder and asks, “Were you here for the first show? F–k Kanye.”

We head over to Vampire Weekend at the What Stage to ease the polarizing tension and anticipation of Yeezus, and despite very few hairs out of place in tunes that sounded just like the records, their beachy tunes and dynamic propulsion made the opening outpour of “Diane Young,” “White Sky” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” just the thing. Their set consisted of only the excellent stuff from their three records, the last two of which were flawless. “Giving Up the Gun,” “Holiday,” “Step” and “Oxford Comma” all punched into their slots as power-pop first in the big crowd setting, momentarily making us forget how much pain and depth there is to Ezra Koenig’s lyrics, at least until “Hannah Hunt,” which he introduces as “about a San Francisco girl” before swallowing his heart on its lovely melody.

www.jasonshaltz.com(Photo by Jason Shaltz)

We interviewed one last arbiter of taste in Kanye: Gumby. The green oblong clayman, a Tennessee native, happens to be a Bonnaroo first-timer, as we gleaned from asking him questions that he would only answer by using his fingers. For Mr. Kardashian, he gave the thumbs up. I’ll bet he’s a Skrillex fan.

www.jasonshaltz.com(Photo by Jason Shaltz)

The moment of truth finally cut the tension, with “Black Skinhead”’s drum rolls announcing our leader’s arrival. Kanye leaned on simple, effective bangers to start: “I Don’t Like,” “Mercy” and the underrated “Way Too Cold,” one of his nastiest tunes ever. “New Slaves” was as hypnotic and unnerving as ever, despite how disconcerting it was to hear thousands of white people chanting “all you blacks want all the same things.” He repeated the first verse at the end as if to instruct the crowd but thankfully they didn’t seem to know it well, and not many people sounded comfortable filling in the “dick”/”swallower” chant. Dipping into his now quite-grand back catalogue for “The Good Life,” “Jesus Walks,” “Diamonds” and “All of the Lights” all in one set would’ve been a statement enough to let Bonnaroo know his agenda is entertainment first. But then there were the speeches. He stopped “Stronger” to announce that The College Dropout was ten years old and that “if you a fan of me, you a fan of your motherf–ing self.” His most triumphant boast was “I know y’all see movies and s–t, but y’all living in the movie right f–king now.”

But later with “Runaway”—where a single piano plink makes the crowd go nuts—he called Beethoven, Howard Hughes and Walt Disney his peers, but also noted “you can only achieve as high as you believe,” riffed on the corporations scared of him and took a shot at Bruno Mars (“They told me I could never play at the Super Bowl/ At least not until I’m super old”).

Later on, “Heartless” was a big singalong (of course he blames losing his soul on a woman), roughed up the press some more and pulled out a convincingly humble “All Falls Down” and stratospheric “Touch the Sky” before closing with the always-appalling “Blood on the Leaves” and ending rather abruptly. But by then he’d already proven, as he claimed earlier, that he was the biggest rock star in the world.

Following the messiah there was surprising respite in the form of Ice Cube, whose self-seriousness was no match for Mr. West’s, and led to a charmingly goofy set imploring fans to keep it gangsta and smoke weed everyday—Cube’s gotten 25 years out of these tropes. It was hard not to crack a smile when he announced he had a message for everyone who thinks he’s “all about the movies and Coors Light now” before diving into “Check Yo Self,” a song from 1992.

But in all seriousness, Cube’s family-man enthusiasm from doing comedies has lightened up his material a ton, even the N.W.A. stuff. (it helps that Westside Connection’s “Bow Down” was greeted with giant inflatable hands making the ‘w’ sign on either side of the stage). The crunk-era “Go to Church” and languid classic “It Was a Good Day” were back-to-back standards and his booming air-raid siren of a voice remained showstoppers even following the two most essential artists of yesteryear’s sets.

www.jasonshaltz.com(Photo by Jason Shaltz)

But even the “Gangsta Gangsta” to end all gangsta gangstas didn’t have a fraction of Skrillex’s charisma. Sonny Moore is a bigger story than his detractors realize, and not just commercially. This is a man who understands partying as much as Andrew W.K., thanks to his mastery of not just dub—er, brostep, but all the rhythms and genres it blows the roof off of. He wove in a live reggae toaster (and hypeman whose only job was to wave around a huge red, yellow and green flag) as well as The Lion King’s “Circle of Life,” which he wub-wub-wubbed live, possibly as a tip of the hat to fest headliner Elton. All of which was sucked through his usual crazy straw of battering-ram bass and machine-gun drum and synth bloodbaths. There’s a reason his records are short but he’s given two-hour slots at festivals—he understands everything about the long and short of how long his music endures. A great quality in an emo kid. Show of the night.

www.jasonshaltz.com(Photo by Jason Shaltz)

But Chance the Rapper following, jogging all over the stage on a giddy sugarhigh unseen in most Drake-era rap, is just as exuberant. His backing band (horns!) and his manic stage routine lifted pretty numbers like “Juice” and “Cocoa Butter Kisses” from his 2013 runaway mixtape success Acid Rap into primetime-ready territory. His joy of performing for these sized crowds at this age and (remarkably early) stage of his career are unparalleled. Here’s hoping he never makes a Yeezus.

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