Reviews of Noname, MGMT, Isaiah Rashad and more last weekend at Buku.

sza photo by steph catsoulis for my spilt milk
SZA at Buku, by Steph Catsoulis

Buku 2018 was a bit of a dumpster fire. The new stage layout separated the Power Plant stage from the other stages by a train track which led to extreme traffic when a train passed through. Mid-performance injuries, delayed and disastrous shows, a  strange fire ignited across the river, and cancellations from Lil Uzi Vert, Ski Mask the Slump God, and Famous Dex were sadly part of this year's Buku story. Some artists came out hot; others were tired or sloppy. Here’s our look into the highs and lows of this year's Buku Fest. (Click on the photos to see them in a viewer)

The narrative of SZA’s performance was dominated by her hobbling off stage with a sprained ankle, which is a shame considering the fantastic show she put on prior to the injury. Last year's CTRL made her name as SZA’s vulnerable lyrics and down-tempo neo-soul style capture an aspect of female energy that is rarely discussed in music, let alone popular. 

SZA's blend of insecurity and beauty empowered the predominantly female crowd at Buku. Her honesty was evident the moment she took the stage in a heavy fur jacket singing “Supermodel.” The crowd sang with her, belting, “I don’t see myself / Wish I was comfortable just with myself” as if they had been waiting for someone to finally put the pressure that woman feel to appeal to others into words. While performing “Doves in the Wind,” SZA borrowed lyrics from Drake and ad-libbed, “You like it when I get aggressive,” flipping the relationship script in relationships to harness typical male power to female confidence and empowerment.

SZA whipped off her coat as she transitioned into “Go Gina.” The symbolic exposure of her body paralleled the song's critique of the character Gina from the sitcom Martin, who works too much to enjoy her life. During the song, SZA said that she was sick and hated performing when she wasn’t at her best. After singing “Drew Barrymore,” she gasped for air and said she couldn’t breathe. Her vocals were smooth and impressive, and if she hadn’t drawn attention to being sick, the audience probably wouldn’t have noticed.

noname photo by steph catsoulis Noname at Buku, by Steph Catsoulis

 

When Noname came to New Orleans in November, she put on a tight, confident performance. That wasn't the case during her set at Buku. The band made noticeable mistakes, and Noname didn't rap with her usual relaxed flow. The crowd wondered if she was drunk. Nonetheless, Noname giggled through the fumbles and handled the situation with charm.

She played the Power Plant stage at 4:30 pm Saturday and seemed confused the moment she took the stage. The crowd was small and the bleak overcast weather matched the barren space around her. At one point, she threw Buku a subtle dig, saying, “We weren’t expecting to be struggle like this. And this isn’t what I expect.” 

Near the end of her set, Noname joked, “I wanna do one more song,because I’m contractually obligated to.” After stumbling through songs to the point where the keyboardist had to take over vocals, she graciously thanked the audience for encouraging her to keep performing. Despite the flaws, Noname’s bubbly personality kept the set fun and lighthearted. Relieved to get off the stage, Noname and the band broke into giggles. 

bishop briggs photo by steph catsoulis Bishop Briggs, by Steph Catsoulis

 

I had some preconceived notions before seeing Bishop Briggs. Her trap-soul blends aggressive trap beats with overly angsty lyrics. Her style seems like different aesthetics were thrown together to check every box on the trendy list, and in many ways, Briggs validated my suspicions. Still, there’s no denying that this girl has pipes. Her soulful power bellowed out of the speakers, but between songs she brought her shoulders up to her ears to appear shy and timid. The “Was that any good?” look only made her persona of an angsty, Tumblr-girl feel fake. Nonetheless, the audience was impressed by her vocal performance, and Briggs certainly earned some new fans. 

buku crowd photo by Steph Catsoulis Part of the Buku audience, by Steph Catsoulis

 

Smino? More like Smi-yeah. The St. Louis rapper jived, grooved, and floated during his Buku set Saturday, proving himself an artist to watch. Smino’s voice is somewhere between Nelly and Miguel, drenched in sex appeal. His unpredictable flow and changes in octaves kept the audience on their toes. That, paired with his clever word play and captivating stage presence, made him an undeniable star at Buku. "Anita” highlighted his vocal control, and on “Blkjuptr,” his swinging rap verses brought to mind Andre 3000, and that’s not a comparison I make lightly. 

Smino typically plays with a live band when he performs, but his deejay proved he had chops before Smino took the stage. The two had a palpable synergy, feeding off each other's energy throughout the show. Every note he hit was sugar, each verse was crisp, and the absence of the live band highlighted Smino’s star power. 

mgmt photo by steph catsoulis MGMT at Buku, by Steph Catsoulis

 

The most boring performance of the weekend came from MGMT. Their latest album, Little Dark Age, marked a shift in a more market-friendly direction for the electro-pop indie band, but it didn’t translate onstage. MGMT sounded great, but no one made an effort to perform. The band stood in a straight line without interacting with one another or the audience, so for a band that makes infectiously danceable music, everyone was surprisingly stagnant. Audience members wandered off after hearing “Electric Feel” and “Congratulations.” 

a buku fan photo by steph catsoulis A Buku fan, by Steph Catsoulis

 

The 21-year-old Little Xan is known for his face tattoos and woozy, breakout hit, “Betrayed.” His set was oversaturated with the foghorn sound effect that trap artists love for some strange reason, but overall, he gave the crowd the emo-trap it expected from him. Lil Xan recently changed his name to Diego to reinforce the anti-drug message that his stage name makes confusing. Then he repeatedly asked the audience members if they were getting “fucked up.”

princess nokia photo by steph catsoulis Princess Nokia meets the front rows, by Steph Catsoulis

 

New York rapper Princess Nokia was tired but tough during her set on Saturday night. Nokia pushed through her set, noticeably fatigued. She took long pauses frequently to chug water while the deejay played cringe-worthy songs to bridge the gaps (think Linkin Park). When she was performing, Nokia put on a hell of a show. She showed her range, from bangers like “Tom Boy” and “Kitana” to singing the song “Apple Pie.” Above all, Princess Nokia inspires confidence in insecurities. Her songs celebrate gender-defiance, with lyrics that boast about her “little titties and fat belly.” It’s refreshing to see an artist tie up her shirt and rub her baby fat the same way Offset from Migos flashes his Rolls Royce. 

isaiah rashad photo by steph catsoulis Isaiah Rashad in the Buku Ballroom, by Steph Catsoulis

 

Isaiah Rashad closed out the weekend on a high note. The strong who made it to the midnight show packed the ballroom from balcony to floor, stage to bar. Plumes of smoke wafted through the air while Rashad confidently recited verse after verse. The energetic cuts were matched by Rashad bouncing and skipping across the stage. “Heavenly Father” brought down the house, but considering Saturday's run of hip-hop cancellations, the crowd just seemed relieved that Rashad showed up.

yung vul photo by steph catsoulis Dominic Minix of Yung Vul, by Steph Catsoulis

 

 Most likely to quit music and become a comedian: Nnamdi Ogbonnaya. The preposterously silly Nnamdi Ogbonnaya's set was as joyful as it was technical. The Chicago native math-rock drummer released an abstract hip-hop album titled Drool last year, and his set blended the complexities of his personality: dark, satirical, humorous, and silly. He playfully switched pitches and made weird noises. When completely serious, his voice resembled Kid Cudi's if Kid Cudi would ever consider playing a song titled “Booty Cheese.” The polyrhythmic drums were mellowed out by the thump of the bass, but Ogbonnaya’s wackiness drove his set.

For more on Buku, see our reviews of Migos and Jay Electronica