RANDALL’S ISLAND PARK, NY — Five minutes before Pusha T appeared on stage at the eighth annual Governors Ball on Randall’s Island, a teenager no older than 17 turned to me and remarked matter-of-factly, “This guy wasn’t relevant until a week ago.”
As someone who grew up first on the sounds of Clipse and the Neptunes and later on Kanye West’s GOOD Music collective, the idea that the Daytona rapper was ever “irrelevant” just didn’t make sense to me. Under-recognized or underrated? Perhaps, but Push has been one of the most important rappers in the industry for the past two decades, even if his bars about drug dealing never stormed the charts.
And yet, just one week into relevancy, Pusha T’s mere presence was enough to inspire thousands of concertgoers to break out into several spontaneous “Fuck Drake” chants before and throughout the set. In just one week, he had gone from being your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper to slayer of the decade’s most dominant man in music, the “Hotline Bling” king Aubrey Drake Graham. Even though Push refrained from performing the diss track at the center of his beef with Drake, “The Story of Adidon,” he clearly reveled in his newfound place at the pinnacle of the rap game throughout the set.
The clash between old and new was not confined to Pusha T’s performance. Of the festival’s three headliners, two of them (Detroit legends Jack White and Eminem) saw their heyday in the early- and mid-2000s. Many of the gathering’s biggest names — Jay Electronica, Damian ‘Jr. Gong’ Marley, Third Eye Blind, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Pusha T —could have easily filled a festival ten years ago. How would these industry veterans play on stage in front of tens of thousands of teenagers recovering from the SATs and college finals?
As it turns out, pretty well.
Friday, though well-attended, was the least crowded of the three days, making it easier to get prime listening position without showing up to the stage an hour early. The day kicked off in earnest with LA-based indie band Sir Sly, and the Australian band Pond, Tame Impala’s psychedelic sister act. Dressed in all red and sporting a “We can act to end gun violence” pin, Sir Sly lead singer Landon Jacobs cooed to the audience, “We just want to be the best band in the world,” as he led the early-afternoon set that included the band’s breakout hits “Gold” and “Higher.”
The first day took a decided turn toward hip hop as the afternoon progressed. DC-based GoldLink performed a 45-minute set while projecting the Hype Williams film Belly behind him on stage. Throughout much of his performance, the rapper struggled to engage the audience, much of which seemed unfamiliar with his work from 2014’s The God Complex and 2015’s And After That, We Didn’t Talk. But when he finally arrived at “Crew,” the track featuring Shy Glizzy that took over the charts in 2017, the crowd was so into it he had his DJ spin it back and play it again.
Following GoldLink were DRAM and Post Malone, both of whom delivered solid performances. True to form, DRAM kept the crowd going with upbeat, cheery songs like “Cash Machine” and “Broccoli” — he also dedicated several songs to his mother (BigBabyMom, as she’s listed on his track “Silver Bells”). Post Malone, who drew the biggest crowd yet at that point, played tracks off of his latest album, Beerbongs and Bentleys.
Soon after the sun had settled below the Manhattan skyline, Damian Marley bounded onto stage, followed by a man waving a massive Ethiopian empire flag. Marley, whose musical style varies most widely among his siblings from their legendary father, captivated the growing crowd with 75 minutes of reggae fusion. Delivering hits from all across his twenty-plus year career, Marley easily connected with an audience much of which was not yet born when he released his first album in 1996. He drew particularly raucous cheers when asking the crowd their thoughts on a certain medicinal herb. By the time he closed out his performance with a joyful rendition of “Living it Up,” the 39-year old from Kingston, Jamaica had the whole festival signing about “making it out of the ghetto.”
The evening was capped off by Jack White, who held court at the far end of the festival on center stage. Drenched in blue light and backed by heavily distorted visuals, the rocker moved efficiently through tracks from the recently released Boarding House Reach, as well as his diverse catalogue from his time with the Raconteurs and, of course, the White Stripes. Before launching into 2007’s “Icky Thump,” the singer “dedicated” the song to “Icky Trump,” to which he said, “you can’t be a president and a prostitute, too.” He revved up the crowd the White Stripes classic “We’re Going to be Friends,” and closed out the first night of Gov Ball with an extended version of the anthemic “Seven Nation Army,” complete with improvised guitar riffs and acoustic singalong. The audience left happy.
Day Two saw attendance spike, as high schoolers unburdened by the bell flocked to the island to hear 2 Chainz, Halsey, Galantis and Travis Scott. Reclusive wordsmith Jay Electronica made an appearance in the early afternoon. Acknowledging that he had never released an album, and only had a handful of songs to his name, the Louisiana rapper instead connected with his young audience by literally immersing himself in it. Much to the chagrin of event security, he invited the audience to come up on the stage, and around 50 revelers made it up before security began stopping people. After performing and pontificating on stage (and teasing a Jay-Z appearance that never materialized), the Exhibit C artist hopped down into the crowd, weaving through the throngs as he performed. And even though many in the audience were unsure just who he was, an artist being so willing to engage directly electrified the crowd. After his set, the rapper stayed behind to shake hands and take photos with everyone who wanted to meet him. It was almost enough to forgive him for not putting out a song in three years.
Later in the afternoon came 2 Chainz, who played to one of the larger crowds of the festival. Chiding the Gov Ball organizers for scheduling him so early, the man who graced us with the bar, “She gotta big booty so I call her Big Booty” rocked the festival with songs like “I’m Different,” “Watch Out” and “No Lie.” He closed by reminding festivalgoers about his upcoming album, Rap or Go to the League, set to release later this year.
And then along came Pusha T.
The venue had filled up an hour before the set, and the crowd was hungry for the blood of a certain Canadian Degrassi star. Push, who was a last-minute addition to the festival after Brockhampton dropped out unexpectedly, did not fully indulge them by performing “Adidon,” but he did take the massive audience on a tour through hip hop history. Whether or not the 18-year-old in front of me knew it beforehand, Pusha T can be found at hip hop’s highest points over the past decade and a half. And indeed, it was songs like Clipse’s “Grindin,” Kanye’s “Mercy” and Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like” that got the people going.
Galantis, who played an unfortunately abbreviated set at Slope Day this year, stayed dry this time as they ran through their hits in the late afternoon. The DJs from Sweden, best known for “Runaway” and “U & I”, also played a good amount of instrumental EDM throughout their set. As they closed out, the duo thanked New York and played the instrumentals to the Jay-Z classic “December 4th,” adding to the long list of Gov Ball callbacks to the last decade.
The area in front of the Gov Ball stage began to fill long before Travis Scott started his headlining set; a concentrated mass of people close to the stage was followed by a sea of worn-out festivalgoers sitting and laying on the grassy field. But as Scott began his set, the skies began to open, and soon a steady stream of people were heading toward the exits. Attendance was not helped by Scott’s confusing refusal to play any of his most popular music at the start of his performance. Though he eventually made his way to audience-pleasers off of Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, the damage was already done, and night two ended less with a bang than a squish.
Day Three developed slowly, and it was not until Aminé took the stage at 3 p.m. that the crowds began to coalesce around any one artist. The Caroline rapper, relatively new to the pop scene, may not have many songs to his name, but he still found a way to parlay his music into an energetic set. He repeatedly reminded the audience that they were beautiful — “You’re beautiful,” he would shout, to which the fans were to respond, “I know” — and tried to impart a much-needed lesson on his listeners — “If you’re not black, don’t say it” — and even found time to work in covers of the Spice Girls and TLC.
From Aminé, the festival took us back to a simpler era, the late 90s and early 2000s, when a rock band from San Francisco told us about their semi-charmed kind of life. Yes, Third Eye Blind, despite lead singer Stephan Jenkins begin diagnosed with bronchitis a day earlier, put forth one of the best performances of the weekend. Taking a minute between songs to update the audience on how he was feeling — “I’m sick as fuck right now, but I’m also high as fuck” — and what the band was up to — in the studio, working on a new album — and at one point asking everyone in the audience to look around and introduce themselves to someone they didn’t know, Jenkins and his band transported the audience back to the time of walkmans, frosted tips and corny music videos that we so desperately need today. The San Francisco rockers worked through new material as well as classics like “Never Let You Go” and “Jumper” and closed with a lively singalong of “Semi-Charmed Life.”