Buku 2019 offered a more mixed bag than usual with generally positive results.
It was 15 minutes before she was scheduled to come on and the crowd was already chanting Lana Del Rey’s name. As more people poured in, everyone was discussing the last time they saw her and what they were hoping she’d play. The lights dimmed, and the spotlight focused on two dancers on stage fanning themselves lavishly. Out walked Lana in a matching sequined dress and boots combo with an athletic jacket on top, and the crowd shrieked collectively.
She began her set at Buku Music + Art Project with “Blue Jeans,” and the dancers behind her were reminiscent of those in 80’s rock videos. She was cool and brimming with confidence while her dancers were in sync behind her. People in the crowd were singing, screaming, and talking endlessly about her beauty. Moving into “White Mustang,” Del Rey slowly danced with the mic stand, and one person near me yelled, “She can’t do this to me!”
For “Cherry,” her approach was more cinematic. She and her dancers laid on the ground to perform, and the song was shot by above and projected as if we were all watching a music video, with her dancers laying beside her on either side, dancing and rolling around. Everything about the choreography, props, costuming, and accompanying video were tethered to Del Rey’s signature American nostalgia for leisure and summer and sadness.
Lana Del Rey knows her strengths well and plays to them masterfully. It’s clear when she dances that she doesn’t have the most natural rhythm, but her choreography hides it, and she compensates by leaning into the mysterious sensuality that she’s built her image on. Her stage presence is minimal, but it fills the entire space. She’s constantly teasing the audience, and they feed off of it.
Lana Del Rey is a rockstar here, and it makes sense. At a festival that prioritizes electronic and hip-hop music, she mixes genres into an equation that keeps American nostalgia at the forefront. She collaborates with big name rappers, such as this weekend’s other headliner A$AP Rocky, while still remaining soft and indie, exemplified by her most recent song, “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have—but i have it” which is quiet with faint piano backing her vocals. She creates music that is mixing the most relevant genres in American music right now.
Her appeal to rock and roll is one that assumes rock ’n’ roll is dated, and therefore can be reimagined and repackaged through the lens of American nostalgia. Her music creates a forlorn image of rock for fans who want a rock ’n’ roll aesthetic without the grit behind hard rock. She turns the genre into one that both looks back and looks ahead, mixing American rock ’n’ roll imagery and aesthetics with newer hip-hop currents underneath the surface.
Lana Del Rey fits Buku, a festival that focuses much more on up-and-comers than big name draws. Toward the end of the performance, she walked toward the front row and said, “I see a lots of familiar faces in the front row,” even referencing one person by name and thanking them all for traveling so far to see her. She has fans that are deeply dedicated and follow her and her work, which is an asset in any booking setting, but especially a festival that has few big name draws. She brings in crowds but doesn’t feel forced on the lineup. (Marisa Clogher)
When I saw Dog Blood on the Buku lineup, I wondered if people still care about Skrillex or Boys Noize, who make up Dog Blood. EDM cycles through styles and stars so quickly that stars can go from headliner to ho-hum in seemingly months. And if people still cared, would the music be meaningfully different without one of the parties? The crowd that spread out at the Power Plant Stage Saturday night answered yes to the first question, while the jury’s still out on the second.
The German duo Boys Noize seemed to dominate with their abrasively textured techno dominating the sound. Their ability to lock in on musical phrase and repeat it with minor tweaks created the hypnotic endless now that techno promises, and even when they folded in dubstep drops, they did so in the more austere sonic vocabulary of Boys Noize.
Still, I’ve always credited Skrillex with having more pop sense than many electronic artists, which translates to accessible music. Saturday night, that translated to regular breaks to interrupt that endless now. Dubstep drops achieved that purpose, but so did folding in sampled human voices—altered to sound inhuman, naturally—and other external sounds. The show caught fire roughly 15 minutes in when Dog Blood remixed the breakbeat staple “Apache” by the Incredible Bongo Band, just like countless DJ and producers before them. It was the oldest of old school moves, but from that point on, the audience was in. (Alex Rawls)
A$AP Rocky challenged the audience Saturday night first by starting his set behind a curtain. He performed “Forever” a light behind him casting his large shadow on that curtain, and the show continued in that mode for the more meditative “Purity” from last year’s Testing. It was a little early in the set to slow it down and muse about trying to “find peace of mind,” but it, combined with his performance behind the curtain, promised an uncompromising Rocky show. I suppose Rocky continued in that mode when the screen dropped it revealed him wearing a hat and a crash test dummy mask. The mask continued to limit how close the audience could feel to him, but the drop itself was dramatic, accompanied by pyro blasts and revealing a stage set that included a dead car that he could climb on.
All of that was very cool, and A$AP Mob’s “Telephone Calls” significantly picked up the energy, but outside of the faithful packed in front of the stage, Rocky didn’t get over. Maybe it was the game he played with revealing himself, and maybe it was the five minutes he spent shouting that he wanted to see “titties!”—really, in 2019, over and over—but those on the edge of the crowd peeled off in significant numbers. People walked by one hip-hop show to get a place to see another one featuring New Orleans’ Suicideboys, which revealed where the energy is in hip-hop today. (Rawls)
Suicideboys signaled their place in the hip-hop ecosystem when they shouted out, “Rest in peace, Lil fuckin’ Peep” a mere 16 months after he died. They’re part of the SoundCloud world that made underground stars of emotional outlaws living bleak, stoned lives in their songs. Their opening song, “Carrollton,” contains the couplet, “Drugs got me fucked up, sluts got me drugged up, fuck / Slap my face against a pill to crush it up,” which is the band in a nutshell. Scrim and Ruby da Cherry sound like they’re in Hell in their songs, and their sympathetic stage presentation bathed them in red lights with so much smoke from the fog machine that no one was clearly visible.
I thought their 2017 appearance at Buku more effectively presented the duo as menaces to society with their friends drinking, smoking, and getting high onstage. The lack of visual chaos left bare the sameness of their vocals and songs, just as their I Want to Die in New Orleans does, with its clear emphasis on the “want to die” part. Still, their theatrical nihilism clearly struck a nerve and the audience was far more intently engaged during their set than it was for A$AP Rocky.
That set, along with Liquid Stranger’s earlier in the afternoon made me think about heavy metal, which a number of acts Saturday shared values with. Liquid Stranger’s dubstep was an impressive exercise in heaviness for heaviness’ sake, laying slabs of magnificently distorted sound over stiff, basic beats, and the crowd responded as crowds have always responded to heavy rock by banging their heads. Suicideboys’ Fuck The World aesthetic allowed everybody there to feel dangerous by association, just as fans at metal, punk, and hard rock shows always have. The scene away from stages brought to mind the great 1986 documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot as it was more about young people getting out of their own small lives through drugs, drinking, and the freedom they feel in a community of people who love the same bands and music. It’s tempting to see Buku concertgoers as more musically and culturally adventurous because techno and house started as musical subcultural products, but and maybe that was once the case. On Saturday, the crowd I saw was the same mix of high school and college students that we see waiting for Judas Priest in Heavy Metal Parking Lot. And, when I walked to my car at the end of the night, I saw the same human wreckage that has always come with people getting too loaded—bros propping up bros, girls helping their friends stagger out, and couples having screaming fights in the unlikeliest of places. One guy sobbed tears of joy on his girlfriend’s shoulder during the afternoon set of emo-by-numbers We Came As Romans that merited a moist eye at best. (Rawls)
British R&B singer Ella Mai occupied the other end of the musical spectrum from Suicideboys, and it was likely easy for their fans to decide what to do in the time slot they shared. Her single “Boo’d Up” was a hit last summer, and it got a second life when she released her self-titled album last fall and sang the song on Saturday Night Live last November. Her sweeter, more gentle and genteel vibe sold the concept of love as clearly as Suicideboys sold bleak aggression. She showed that she had more than just “Boo’d Up,” which sounded better than it did on SNL, and those songs were better live as well. I like the affair negotiation “Whatchamacallit” on record, but live, she sang, “This could be our little secret” in a way that laid out all of her mixed emotions. She knew she was playing herself, but there was something beyond sex in the relationship that she loved too much to say no to. (Rawls)
Doja Cat had about five times the crowd as Dounia who was at the same stage at same time on Friday night, and I think a lot of it has to do with her song “Mooo!' that went viral a few months months ago. She knows how to work a crowd, and keeps the energy high. She recently released a song with Rico Nasty and brought her out toward the end of her set. Their energy made me want to watch an entire set of the two performing together. (Clogher)
Doja Cat’s sex-positive persona carried her through the lull in her set between the immediate songs she opened her set with and the collab with Rico Nasty on “Tia Tamera” that reengaged the crowd. I wasn’t convinced by her voice, but the easy, guileless she talked about sex meant that when she got to the viral hit, “Mooo!,” she could sing, “Bitch, I’m a cow” and have the crowd not only stay with her but love her more. (Rawls)
One disappointment Saturday came when I went to see Earthgang play a split set with J.I.D. and saw a slide on the rear screen that said the show had been rescheduled for later that night. I went to see Odd Future’s Earl Sweatshirt (remember when they were outrageous? 2011?) and when the sound man cut him off five minutes early, I returned to find J.I.D. on and learned that the show went on as if that slide had never happened. As a result, I missed Earthgang but loved what I saw of J.I.D. He offered the other alternative that outflanked A$AP Rocky on Saturday—a more positive, OutKast-influenced hip-hop vision. He encouraged the audience to “get some fuckin’ money,” but he framed it in less outlaw terms. “Activate your life,” he said, and later he told the crowd, “Get that health care.”
Those thoughts might have played as bookish or programmatic from someone else, but J.I.D.’s enthusiasm for the moment was so palpable that his mouth could barely keep up with everything he wanted to say. His dedication to all the underdogs in the room ended in a torrent of nonsense syllables as his brain ran three steps ahead of his mouth. That enthusiasm for the moment would mean less if the songs and his chops didn’t follow suit, but they did. He could wrap his tongue around the most rapid-fire lyrics, and the songs were routinely engaging. When this year’s Buku ended, the two albums I wanted to hear were J.I.D.’s Dicaprio 2 and Ella Mai. (Rawls)
It was disappointing not getting to see Earthgang and J.I.D. together because they both seem to be working to make their music more cinematic. J.I.D's newest album is titled Dicaprio 2 and behind him throughout the performance was him dressed as different characters that Leonardo Dicaprio has played in his Oscar-nominated films. The video wasn’t for a single song and it ran through the entire performance, which makes me curious if there was more to it that I missed. Still, his stage presence is high energy and starts a mosh pit for his most popular song, “Never.” (Clogher)
Her performance wasn't incredibly polished, and it sometimes seemed like she was just talking into the microphone rather than singing, which was disappointing because it's clear that she has an incredible singing voice that wasn't highlighted enough during her performance. She played for a very small crowd, but everyone in the crowd knew all the words to all of her songs. The crowds at Buku rarely seem to have much less interest in knowing an artist's complete body of work, so it was nice to see some dedicated fans with an intimate performance with a favorite artist. After the show, she came out into the crowd to hang out with the fans in the first couple of rows.