Walking into the Rolling Loud festival, I was hoping to find 60,000 kids who spend their spare time uploading Playboi Carti leaks to YouTube. But as I entered Queens’ Citi Field on Saturday, I was met with the NYPD gripping their automatic weapons and five older men holding blown-up posters of Brooklyn rapper Sheff G’s debut mixtape cover art. “Sheff G should be here,” yelled one of the men, as a growing crowd of teenagers in Astroworld T-shirts and faux-vintage basketball jerseys shuffled past them.
The night before, the NYPD had sent the festival a request that the rappers Pop Smoke, 22Gz, Sheff G, Casanova, and Don Q be removed from the lineup. The reason delivered by cops was that the inclusion of the five New York City rappers would lead to a “higher risk of violence.” To some, it was surprising that these artists were being treated like terrorists, but in the wake of a 2016 shooting by rapper Troy Ave at Irving Plaza and the ongoing Tekashi 6ix9ine case, the NYPD has all the ammunition they need to once again make rap music a scapegoat for the city’s crime. Of course, Rolling Loud gave in to the requests; founder Tariq Cherif tweeted that they had no choice.
In spite of what felt like a capitulation to corporate concerns, I was excited about this year’s Rolling Loud. Typically, music festivals handle rap like it’s an afterthought, but for the New York stop of this touring rap fest the only criteria to be booked seems to involve reaching 100,000 SoundCloud plays and proving that you were once gifted a free Vlone T-shirt by an A$AP affiliate. Despite the Rocky clones, the lineup featured a string of rap’s best crooners like A Boogie, Gunna, and Lil Keed.
Outside the gates, I caught a whiff of Sour Apple Four Loko and followed that scent to the festival grounds. Once through security, I came across a group of kids jogging to the merch area. Scanning the line, everyone seemed to be in a uniform: T-shirts from Travis Scott’s Look Mom I Can Fly documentary, cargo and camo joggers, knockoff Balmain jeans, checkerboard Vans, Yeezy 350 boosts, fresh fades, and pigtails. I darted from that scene and headed toward the music.
I arrived at the the Dryp Stage in time to see Young Thug prodigy Lil Keed, who began with the JetsonMade-produced “It’s Up Freestyle.” Next to me, a girl in a neon jumpsuit and muddy white Air Force Ones was reciting every word. “Keed is so good,” I said to her, as the ATL rapper’s DJ delivered a monologue. “Oh, that’s his name?” she asked, taking a sip of Red Four Loko. “I just know that song from TikTok.”
Wandering around, I stumbled into a set from Bronx upstart Lil Tjay that featured parents recording videos of their young kids hitting the woah to “Pop Out.” I traveled back in time, landing in a crowd of Been Trill Hoodies, Hood By Air tees, Crooks and Castles bomber jackets, and Yeezus merch, as Desiigner performed everything but “Panda.” Playboi Carti went off on semi-motivational rants during his set, as the crowd looked on ready to reenact the “Playboi Carti be like” video. A group of teenage girls, all with perfect Euphoria-style glittery eye makeup, danced like the “Cybergoth Dance Party” video to Lil Baby and Gunna’s “Sold Out Dates.” I felt like I was trapped in a playground for rich teens.
The next day, I was unfortunately reminded that A$AP Rocky’s 2018 “experimental” clusterfuck of an album, Testing, exists. Rocky’s merch was around every corner, white T-shirts with neon lettering featuring phrases like “1-800-EAT-SHIT.” I witnessed a boy that looked like Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard wearing a Rocky-inspired babushka struggle to light his blunt, before giving up and asking his friend, who was also wearing a babushka.
At least City Morgue was an escape—as the New York duo paraded across the stage, their programmed electric guitars made my chest vibrate. Stumbling out of the pit smelling of sweat and dried blood was Germz, a 20-year-old attendee from Yonkers. “I only ever go to rock shows,” he said, as he tried to smooth the wrinkles out of his Astroworld T-shirt and baby blue Adidas sweats. “But that shit went way harder than any rock show. It was sick.”
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Soon enough, the NYPD was back at it, arms crossed in a herd keeping watch during A Boogie’s performance though the only crime the Bronx crooner is guilty of is the horniness of the “Love Drugs and Sex” hook. At A Boogie, the drunk audience reached their breaking point: some cried, relationships were in turmoil, and standoffs were brewing between shirtless boys in babushkas.
After nearly getting cracked in the dome by an aerial Four Loko can, I retreated to the back, near the free water. I was over Rolling Loud. On the surface, a rap festival is a great idea. But rap was never meant to be enjoyed at a baseball park, on stages sponsored by Fashion Nova, giving in to NYPD requests, and pricing out native New Yorkers. Just as I had that thought, two 17-year-olds from D.C. discussing the upcoming Lil Uzi Vert set sat down next to me. I could see the cops headed toward the Juice WRLD performance. I asked the kids next to me, “What did you guys think of Playboi Carti yesterday?” “I was surprised he played the leaks,” said the one in a salmon tee and basketball shorts. “Yeah, ‘Cancun,’” responded the other. Two Carti fans was better than nothing. After I talked to them I left; I’d gotten what I came for.
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