The rain held off on the two-day celebration of good times at Mardi Gras World. How good were those times, though?
Friday’s New York Times Magazine is a special issue with an extended story, “25 Songs That Tell Us Where We’re Going.” This list includes “Trap Queen” by Fetty Wap, who played Buku this weekend, as well as songs by Buku alumni Kendrick Lamar, Run the Jewels, and Chance the Rapper. Another eight or nine artists on the list would make sense at Buku if their schedules coincided. This year’s festival seemed particularly forward-leaning because this year it skipped Nas, Public Enemy, Flaming Lips, and anyone who made it on to past lineups as a hip-hop or head music godfather. It also trimmed psychedelic and indie fellow travelers, leaving out post-rock drones and indie rock bands unless, like Purity Ring or Crystal Castles, they made dance music first.
One of the most anticipated sets this year came from Atlanta rapper Future, but My Spilt Milk’s Justin Picard and I had very different experiences of it. He was much closer to the stage and wrote:
From the pit, it felt like Future played a killer set at Buku this year. He performed on the Power Plant stage, and had the massive crowd jumping and singing along the entire time. He utilized every hit in his arsenal and drew on some of his earliest releases to keep things interesting. The music translated surprisingly well to live performance; heavily filtered vocals came across cleanly as the artist let the beat drop out and sang along with the crowd. It was definitely one of the better rap sets I’ve seen at Buku over the past three years.
Farther back, wind off the river diminished all the highs in the mix, so Future’s voice had little power and was overmatched by the bass thump, which occasionally moved the audience behind the soundboard.
I’m sure organizers and fans alike happily accepted the wind considering Buku got that instead of the rain that went to the Northshore, but it similarly kicked Swedish producers Miike Snow in the musical nuts Saturday night. Almost every song in their set could have followed OMD at the prom at the end of Pretty in Pink, but its sonic lightness couldn’t stand up to the wind.
Still, Saturday night’s headliner, Pretty Lights, broke the jinx with a set that answered a question only asked by people not at Buku: Can he play? Instead of a purely electronic set, he brought horns, keyboards, a guitar and drums that genuinely took electronic dance music in a more cinematic direction with pieces that often seemed like funky excerpts from James Bond soundtracks. The rumor that Keith Emerson took his own life and one mid-tempo piece meandered like Pink Floyd circa Animals helped me hear prog elements in the Pretty Lights set, but the more relevant references came from DJs and the sorts of grooves that old school hip-hop was built on. They underpinned Pretty Lights’ expansive sound and gave his sound a humanity with the slight inconsistencies in how hard a snare was struck or a note was played.
The live band made it hard for Pretty Lights to lift audiences and blow them up with a bass drop the way more tech-based performers could, but there were plenty of other people doing that, so it wasn’t missed during his set. If a bass drop happened as people walked by the opening to the Float Den stage, for a moment they jumped to life for a moment before returning to what they were doing soon after. The response borders on reflexive, and because of that I had mixed feelings about some of the Float Den DJs. Yellow Claw had a full house dancing hard and sweating, but I could hear the trio pushing the dancers’ buttons more clearly than I could focus on the songs. Still, not everybody got the crowd to work that hard, so that deserves credit, and it was hard to imagine anyone giving the audience more exactly what it wanted.
I left Yellow Claw grossed out when two bros saw a young woman dancing wearing only a skirt and pasties and tried to figure out how to get pictures of her without her knowing. When they realized they wouldn’t be happy with the results, they couldn’t walk away. They had to ask the woman if they could take her picture, as if she came dressed as she did just so she could end up part of some dude’s Snapchat.
Buku may host the future of music, but that doesn’t mean the future was always prepossessing this weekend. "Trap Queen" or any four-minute slice of Fetty Wap is disarmingly artless. His dance hall-lite sound and unlabored melodies cut through all the obviously manufactured pop on the market. In concert Friday night, the sing-song melodies begin to seem really familiar, and the blunted quality began to seem lazy. A woman walked by me and volunteered, "You can do better than this music.”
I know I could do better than Kid Cudi. "There will be more of these heart to hearts," he’s said after a between-song chat, and those words have rarely sounded like more of a threat. Not that he was being menacing. On the contrary, he was being warm and open, but a warm, open Kid Cudi isn't necessarily a deep one. At one point, he asked the crowd if he could keep it human to human, as if anyone there might say No, let's keep it Cudi / New Orleans, thanks.”
Cudi’s late 2015 album Speeding Bullet 2 Heaven was panned for its weak rock turn and blandly declamatory lyrics, but I didn’t hear how they were meaningfully worse than those that went those that came before. When he performed “Ghost!” from 2010’s Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager, Cudi confessed with shopping list eloquence that “this world is so crazy” and “I’m confused about the world I live in.” Pairing those lyrics with Third Eye Blind-level alternative rock riffs made Cudi seem like a middleweight at best, though to be fair, the audience was clearly far more with him than I was.
Justin had better luck earlier in the day when Break Science performed:
Break Science was organic and electric in the Ballroom on Friday. They were the first performers on the stage, and opened things up with their unique brand of jazz and hip hop infused electronic music. A meandering piano introduction led to upbeat, infectious rhythms as the live drum kit came in, and a breakdance crew in the crowd immediately formed a circle and started dancing.
The entire set was extremely fluid and cohesive; the tempo shifted without the crowd losing the rhythm, or interest. Towards the end, Break Science peaked with the unveiling of a new track, “Intergalactic Android Love,” that had thumping, reverb-soaked percussion and an uplifting horn section.
Jai Wolf had the Back Alley stage at capacity. It was the largest crowd I have seen over the past three years at the stage, and at first, it seemed unwarranted. The artist abruptly transitioned between songs with completely different tempos and in different keys, and even played Justin Bieber’s, “Sorry,” in what felt like a surreal attempt by a high school DJ to win back a crowd. Then, thirty minutes into the set, he found his groove. He transitioned into euphoric, Odesza-esque music and unexpected remixes, and found a way to seamlessly incorporate some popular rap tracks that tied the entire set together. His energy also went up, at one point he ripped off his headphones and jumped on top of the table in an act more befitting Deorro in the Float Den or Above and Beyond on the Main Stage.
Saturday, Earl Sweatshirt’s set stood out because the Odd Future rapper asked the audience for more than just energy and sweat. Between Cudi and the omnipresent thump, Buku is rarely subtle, but Sweatshirt is often contemplative with a distinctive cadence closer to poetry than rap. His songs unfold, rarely arriving at a chorus, and his beats are lumpy, rarely delivering a clear groove. At one point midway through his set, Sweatshirt had done the seemingly impossible and stilled a Buku audience. Even one lone girl near the back who kept trying to get something going with her blinky hula hoop gave up, but they didn’t leave.
Sweatshirt spoke between songs with a stand-up comedian’s bemusement. It’s not a common hip-hop onstage persona, and it was doubly intriguing considering his grim stories of wasted youth. His charisma was strong enough to hold the crowd, even when he faced technical difficulties. A clearly audible crackle at times accompanied the beats played by his DJ on his laptop, and it returned a number of times throughout the set. When it first happened, Sweatshirt encouraged the crowd to sing European soccer chants to kill time. When the crackle returned, he paused to wait for it to get fixed, then said “Fuck it” and started a song to plow through, then said, “Renege” as it was too distracting. The crowd started an enthusiastic “Olé / Olé Olé Olé / O-lé, O-lé,” which clearly amused him despite the situation.
His own music was rarely so crowd-pleasing, occasionally bringing to mind trip-hop hero Tricky with the self-conscious British drama replaced by a smoked-out L.A. fatalism. More than patience though, Sweatshirt asked the audience to buy into his world, which is very different from Buku’s most of the time. The festival is largely geared for very immediate, very physical rewards, and the extended nature of DJ sets implies a space/moment where the good time doesn’t end. Earl Sweatshirt’s idea of a sing-along was the confused and suspicious chorus of “Grown-Ups”:
Don’t know where I’m going, don’t know where I been
Never trust these hoes, can’t even trust my friends
Tell that bitch to roll up, fucking with some grown ups
Other highs and lows from the weekend:
- For Justin, What So Not:
In the Float Den Saturday, What So Not's musicality distinguished him from other artists. While his set still packed a punch, he didn’t rely on thumping bass distortions, and his carefully composed melodies left a lasting impression.
Like Jai Wolf yesterday, What So Not had a slow start, but he settled in with an unexpected rock-style remix of “Tell Me.” He followed it up with a few trap heaters and kept things moving. Later, remixes of slower songs like, "Get Free," by Major Lazer, kept the audience engaged, and ultimately made the set entertaining from start to finish.
- For me, Crystal Castles, whose abrasive techno bordered on industrial, powered by live drums. Singer Edith Frances’ yelped vocals add punky aggression, but they were unsettling in a number of ways. First, they sounded disturbingly similar to those of Alice Glass, who left the band last year and spoke cryptically about emotional abuse, and they were placed farther back in the mix than we usually hear singers, just as they were on record. The ambient suspicion of issues with women took some of the fun out of the sonic confrontation.
- For me, part of Fly Boy Keno’s set opening for Mystikal and Juvenile. It began as generic bounce, though for the last few years bounce’s jackhammer vocals and beats have had more in common with techno and dubstep than R&B. Keno’s set genuinely jumped when he performed “Beats Start Knocking,” the track he sang on Skrillex and Diplo Present Jack Ü (the album that produced “Where Are Ü Now,” the hit that helped get Justin Bieber into the New York Times piece). Keno then presided over “Express Yourself,” the song Diplo recorded with the Nicky Da B. Keno dedicated the song to Nicky Da B, who died in 2014, and shouted out his name as the track played.