Ahead of Sunday’s Super Bowl halftime show, a lot of noise was made that this would be the first year hip-hop took center stage at the concert. It was the marketing copy that ignored the glaring lag in realization – that rap was finally getting attention in perhaps the twenties of hip-hop occupying the center of American pop music. Does such delayed progress still count as a breakthrough?
After several years grappling with an assortment of racial controversies, the NFL probably wanted credit for showcasing black music — especially hip-hop, the lingua franca of American pop culture — this prominently. What would some of rap music’s generational superstars – Dr. Dre, Eminem, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar – titans who don’t fear for their reputation, do with this most visible platform?
The stories told on the grounds of SoFi Stadium on Sunday night were multi-layered, a dynamic performance stretching atop a ditch of potential political landmines. Overall, there was exuberant entertainment, a mix of hits so central to American pop that it practically staved off dissent.
Dr. Dre opened the performance behind a fake mixing board, a nod to where he became famous: the ability to create sound. For the next 12 minutes, bright, punchy hits followed, including “The Next Episode,” an edgy collaboration between Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, wearing a blue bandana-themed tracksuit; “California Love” (thankfully delivered without a Tupac Shakur hologram, as some had claimed); Eminem’s “Lose Yourself”; Lamar’s pugnacious and proud “Okay”; and a pair of songs by Mary J. Blige, the only singer on the bill.
50 Cent, hanging upside down from the ceiling of the set, was an unannounced guest, performing his hit “In Da Club,” one of Dr. Dre’s signature productions. (It was almost certainly the loudest halftime show ever.)
Performance was almost uniformly excellent. Lamar was stunning – ecstatically fluid, moving his body with jagged vigor. Snoop Dogg was confident beyond measure, a veteran of high-pressure comfort. Eminem, insular as always, still emanated a robust tension. Blige was in command, helping bring the show’s central segment into focus with a cheery “Family Affair” and “No More Drama,” rich in purple pain. And Dr. Dre beamed everywhere, a maestro surveying the spoils of the decades he spent re-orchestrating the form and texture of pop.
But the real battles of this halftime show were between enthusiasm and cynicism, censorship and protest, the amplification of black artists on this stage and the drowning out of black voices at various stages of protest against the NFL. Just weeks ago, the NFL was being sued by former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores who said he faced discriminatory hiring practices.
The halftime show, which was chanted as an oasis of racial courtesy if not downright progressive, was the third orchestrated in a partnership between the NFL and Jay-Z’s entertainment and sports company, Roc Nation, which was hit following the kneeling protests spawned by Colin Kaepernick in 2016.
“It’s crazy that it’s taken this long for us to be recognized,” Dr. Dre said at the game’s official press conference last week, pointing out that the NFL had basically chosen to wait for the game. hip-hop has become oldies music — aside from Lamar, every artist on Sunday’s stage had its commercial and creative peak more than a decade ago — in order to give him full leeway on his biggest stage.
The NFL is notoriously protective of its turf, and halftime mishaps — MIA middle finger Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction — have tended to cause outsized public hubbub. Halftime may well be one of the last stops in this country where hip-hop still feels like foreign music, amplifying feelings that league and performer interests might not have been fully aligned.
This year’s event also took place in South Los Angeles, just 20 minutes west of Compton, where Dr. Dre was one of the founders of NWA, one of the hip-hop groups most important of all time, godfathers of gangster rap and agit-pop legends. . Compton was integrated into the stage layout: the buildings included signs pointing to its various landmarks, including Tam’s Burgers, Dale’s Donuts and Eve After Dark nightclub, where Dr Dre used to perform with his first band, World Class Wreckin’ Vintage. The dances, from Crip-walking to krumping, were specific to Los Angeles. Three vintage Chevrolet Impalas served as a visual nod to lowrider culture. Lamar performed his segment atop a massive aerial photograph of the city.
Each of those nods was salient and powerful, a way to make this incredibly global event feel deeply local. But it was unclear whether the renegade political mind that was a hallmark of hip-hop when Dr. Dre was still a member of the NWA would also make an appearance during the show.
A few hours before the start of the game, Puck News reported that Eminem, the only white performer on the show, had offered to take a knee during the set, and was turned down by the NFL. It sounded like a pre-made controversy, the kind of leak designed simply to be refuted.
And so there was Eminem, rapping “Opportunity comes once in a life” at the end of “Lose Yourself,” putting his right hand to his head and dropping to his left knee while Dr. Dre sat in front of a piano. white and tapped out a familiar tune from Tupac’s “I Ain’t Mad at Cha” – a flash of radicalism and a jolt of elegance, a pushback and a hug, an implied raised fist and a wink. And after the show ended, an NFL spokesperson said the league knew all along that Eminem would take a knee. Is it still a protest if it has been signed and approved?