Austin City Limits (ACL) has always been a top-notch music festival that caters to all sorts of music fans. I’ve seen artists ranging from electronic/house favorites like Deadmau5 to classic stars like Neil Young – all in our own Zilker Park. This year was no exception. Three artists in particular had both phenomenal discographies, and each put on an excellent show.
Challenged to advocate for “today’s music,” I want to describe my experiences, and encourage the reader to seek out this music and decide for himself/herself.
1) Kendrick Lamar (Saturday, 8:30 PM)
Kendrick Lamar may be the best rapper alive today. To understand what it is that makes him one of the greats, one must understand several important concepts in rap.
Two of these concepts are some of the basic technical principles of rap: flow and delivery. Flow and delivery are rap’s answer to the ancient Greeks’ and Romans’ poetic meter and stress. Meter is the rhythm with which the poet reads his words; in rap, flow is the skill of choosing the right words and rhythm to fit to the beat. Stress refers to the natural tones of a language and their impact on how the poem is read. Delivery deals with the rapper’s tone and how he uses it to influence the feeling of a song.
Kendrick is a master of both. His flow is best seen in one of his more popular songs, Alright. From 0:53 to 1:03 he speaks with a continuous rhythm, rapping fast and rhyming well. Then, at 1:04, he moves to a more melodic rhyme scheme. The beat never changes – the only thing that changes is the pattern of speech Lamar employs. His delivery style changes significantly from song to song as well. The best instance of this is on the song U, one of his darkest tracks. Lamar raps the first half of the song using his normal voice, but once the beat slows down, he adopts a squeaky, panicked voice to fit his dark subject matter.
But flow and delivery aren’t everything. Lamar also has a remarkable command over the language, and a keen sense of his own beliefs. He’s got a few quips that would make a more traditional/conservative person flinch, but in context many of these quotes are actually fairly moderate statements.
He’s also a master of crafting a running narrative for an album, especially on his sophomore work Good Kid, M.AA.D City. Using skits before and after songs, Lamar tells the story of growing up in the hood and his transition from boyhood to manhood. He creates a world and invites us through his album to spend an hour in it.
As well, he demonstrates especially on his newer albums an understanding of and appreciation for many types of music. His frantic interlude For Free? is a vulgar rap interpretation of free jazz. untitled 05, off his newest album, is a six-minute jazz/soul anthem with maybe a minute of rap sandwiched inside. i, on the other hand, is a guitar-heavy pop hit with some clear rock influences in its solos.
As far as his live performance, Kendrick Lamar absolutely lived up to expectations. A rap show differs a bit from a traditional band, in that for the most part the show isn’t as much about seeing the rapper perform every song verbatim, but rather about the atmosphere and feeling which the performer is able to create.
On Saturday night Kendrick Lamar held thousands of people at full attention for an hour and a half. Every refrain had every audience member singing along, and every attempt at call-and-response was a fantastic success. His video screens were run through a black-and-white filter that made it impossible to tell who was who in the crowd. The audience was just a giant, indistinguishable mass of people masked in gray. By the end of the show, before the encore, the entire crowd chanted the chorus of Alright – “We gon’ be alright! We gon’ be alright!” – before he came back out to close the show with the song. Everything about the atmosphere seemed as though it had been designed to make every audience member feel like a part of something bigger. Thanks to all this, Kendrick was able to make good on the promise he made at the start of his performance: it was absolutely the “livest show this weekend.”
2) Anderson .Paak (Saturday, 6:30 PM)
Anderson .Paak’s music is about funky, groovy fun. One of his most popular songs, Am I Wrong?, is a great example. The song has a nostalgic quality to it, backed up by his excellent vocals, but then introduces some 2016 touches with a guest verse from rapper Schoolboy. Q. .Paak does an excellent job of building tension into the song, before breaking into an extended instrumental section that’s impossible to sit still to, whether live or listening at home.
.Paak once again channels a retro vibe in his bassy jam Come Down. With a catchy riff (that’s based on Hatikvah, no less), .Paak just makes you want to move. The song works itself into such a funk that the rap and guitar can begin to feel almost ancillary. At the festival, the guitar work on this song was superb. .Paak is one of several rappers who perform with a full band live, and the decision pays off. This was the opener to his set, and it got all in attendance on their feet.
But Anderson .Paak isn’t all fun; he can play the crooner as well. He shows us that on The Bird, a slow jam in the truest sense of the term. One of the greatest strengths .Paak has is voice, which is fully on display here. The star of the show, both live and recorded, though, is the brass on The Bird. It’s hard to make an extended trumpet solo work with a live rap crowd, but we were mesmerized by .Paak’s band on Saturday.
Though he isn’t revolutionary, Anderson .Paak is one of the most fun, upbeat rappers around today. His live performance, wrought with beautiful instrumental work and a buzzing energy, was a perfect display of his work. .Paak kept the crowd engaged and excited, and he put on a memorable show.
3) LCD Soundsystem (Sunday, 8 PM)
It didn’t come as much of a surprise when LCD Soundsystem announced their breakup in 2011. Their lead singer James Murphy even hinted at it on their last album. In their song, All My Friends, he wrote that “this [album] could be the last time,” and described the band as going out “like a sales force into the night.” Their disillusionment with the cycle of touring and recording was clear, and so they made the decision to retire on top.
But what came as a huge surprise was their announcement that this year they would be reuniting for a series of big festival shows, including both weeks of ACL. They brought their unique electronic-influenced indie rock style to the festival this last weekend to great success, playing on both Sundays to massive crowds of devoted fans.
LCD Soundsystem nailed their more popular songs like I Can Change, Someone Great, and Dance Yrself Clean.
They kept the audience moving and singing throughout the show, and played popular rock hits like Daft Punk is Playing at My House to perfection.
But where the band shined was on their slow, dramatic ballad, New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down. Murphy’s light falsetto over the calm piano gives the song a mournful tone that then escalates into a cacophony of guitar and cymbals by the song’s 3-minute mark. New York is at its heart a love song from a man to his hometown, and in that way I think everyone can relate to it. The ACL crowd certainly could – we were all on our feet and singing along to every word.
The magic of LCD’s set at ACL this year was as much in the crowd as anything else. For a band that broke up five years ago, the amount of passion and emotion displayed by the ACL audience was palpable. It’s a clear testament to the musical footprint that Murphy and company have made so far, and it’s that footprint which has made the LCD Soundsystem reunion tour such a rousing success.