Made in America Festivals 12 Best Moments, From Megan Thee Stallions Moves to Justin Biebers Star-Studded Set

Beyond the delta variant’s uptick and last week’s visitation of Hurricane Ida, Jay-Z’s annual Made in America music festival in Philadelphia — canceled in 2020, as were most music festivals, due to COVID-19 — could have been a wash. Bonnaroo in Tennessee certainly felt the water-logged wrath of Ida, and ceased plans for its 2021 event.

Luckily, much of Philly dried out fast (at least the Art Museum area where MIA is held yearly), the weather was balmy, and the outdoor, hip hop-heavy fest jumped off with several surprises to go with its headliners — Lil Baby on Saturday and Justin Bieber on Sunday.

This weekend’s MIA also had the double honor of celebrating the fest’s 10th anniversary as well as the birthday of its founder’s wife, Beyoncé. Unlike other years where Jay and Bey were spotted backstage and mulling through its crowds (both have headlined Made in America, separately), this year, the audience had to do with Kehlani shouting out birthday wishes to Beyoncé (who the singer called “my girl”).

Here are 12 of the best moments from Made in America 2021.

Lil Baby Reveals His Secret

After dynamic appearances on Kanye West’s “Donda,” and Drake’s “Certified Lover Boy,” (the only rapper to do so, save for MIA boss, Jay-Z), and days after a Twitter debate as to whether he’s “the Tupac of this Generation,” the hype for Lil Baby’s headline set was high. Unsurprisingly, Lil Baby met that bar, leaping way over it with enough weirdness and pop appeal to make it the first day’s all-around winner by a mile.

Much of the key to what Lil Baby does — what makes him magnetic, and mega-successful — was found on the wide stage of Made in America.

Starting his set from a bed and rumpled, Lil Baby — wearing a simple tank-top and shorts — wasted no time in portraying a level of theatricality entirely insular. Bouncing energetically, Lil Baby immediately lent histrionic, multi-colored vocals to bangers balanced between the eerily atmospheric and the naggingly melodic. How theatrical? Baby even bested his surprise on-stage guest Lil Uzi Vert — no stranger to dramatic flair with a diamond in his forehead and his fondness for sci-fi sonics and Black Futurism — with his take on his own haunted “XO Tour Llif3” and its “All my friends are dead” refrain.

Lil Baby’s rangy vocal tones and character-driven nuances were his swaggering tracks’ hook as he moved from a menacing whisper to a scream to an outraged cackle, often within one bridge. Forget Tupac. From “Emotionally Scarred” to “Get Money,” Lil Baby had all the shades and soul of James Brown at his most possessed.

Speaking of Drake

Spend any time mulling through the crowds at MIA — young, old, racially and sexually diverse — and not only did you hear “Life of the Party” repeatedly (the André 3000 Kanye West collab left off “Donda” that Drake dropped on SiriusXM), and its many many conspiracy theories. Many a MIA-attendee hoped for — even expected — Drake to show up as the weekend’s last-minute guest set, especially since Jay-Z appears on “Certified Lover Boy” and opened the door to Drizzy’s first MIA appearance at the fest’s first edition with a slot right below that year’s headliner, Pearl Jam.

YouTube Starts The Day

MIA’s first official performer on Saturday was Florida YouTube sensation Destin Conrad who, upon showing up on the Tidal stage, announced that this was not only his first festival performance, but his third live show. Period. If Destin was nervous, it didn’t show as he pulled off a lovely version of Aliyah’s “One in a Million” with panache and soul.

Young Thug: Pretty in Pink

Maybe the weather wasn’t sweltering with Philly’s usual whack humidity, but seeing Young Thug impossibly decked out in a loud pink quilted-crinkle jacket (with matching pink slacks, sunglasses and microphone) was a lot to take in. Though A$AP Ferg came before him and gave a smartly aggressive performance, it was Thug’s swift, bracing slot that truly energized the MIA crowd for the first time on Saturday. Bold set. But WTF was with the beyond-life-sized pink spider set in Plexiglass behind Thug? While everyone watched with heated anticipation to see how the spider (his clothing brand’s symbol) would spring to life, the arachnid did little but stand still and mope — a Spinal Tap-like Stonehenge totem.

Griselda and the New Gangster Rap

One great musical surprise — something you don’t hear much of in the new trap-hop economy — is anything good and grooving when it comes to old-fashioned, new-fashionable gangster rap. The rough, gruff Griselda — consisting of Benny the Butcher, Conway the Machine and Westside Gunn — interacted and intertwined as one combine-churning, mock-criminally enterprising unit with the occasional shout out to Philly heritage food (cheesesteaks) and its beloved block where hippies meet, South Street.

Maybe Book Wu-Tang Clan Next Year?

When not standing stage front, MIA’s massive crowds were either lined up for the fest’s wealth of food trucks or getting photos taken high-fiving and throwing Vs in front of the mock-up Staten Island, NY corner grocery store (ice chest and all), where Wu-Tang Clan hung in their pre-rap days in accordance with the Hulu series, “Wu-Tang: An American Saga.” The Wu-Tang series returns for its second season on Sept. 8, and if Instagram photo sessions are any account, it should be huge. Also, while we’re talking about Wu-Tang, why isn’t legacy rapper Jay-Z booking other legacy rappers for MIA? Nas, De La Soul, Swizz Beatz and other legacy hip hop acts are making news and topping charts. Why not?

Kehlani: MIA’s Smooth Operator

Kudos to those who booked Oakland’s flighty R&B crooner Kehlani and put her on, in a slot in the cool of the evening. As one of the few (only?) MIA performers with a live band behind her (keytars, acoustic guitars and all), Kehlani’s smoky voice and the undulating fluidity of her sultry arrangements, when combined with nightfall’s gentle breeze, was the perfect meeting of mood and music. Moments like this is why crowds love outdoor festivals. Talking and joking with her audience as intimately as you would a good friend, she too seemed astounded regarding her MIA booking. “You know I’m going to do love songs, right? That it’s going to be slow, and mellow?” Good.

Meek Mill’s Unexpected, Expected Surprise

It was no shock that Philadelphia rapper/activist Meek Mill would jump on during Lil Baby’s set as Baby and his close associate, Lil Durk, both appear on Mill’s newest single, “Sharing Locations.” What was a welcome surprise was how Meek – at the end of Megan Thee Stallion’s set — snuck in his own 20-minute pop-up, a fast and rowdy lot of songs starting with his signature hit, “Dreams and Nightmares,” continued with appearances from hard rappers Roddy Ricch and Bobby Shmurda, and ending with Mill thanking his hometown’s crowd for sticking with him through his time in prison and additional personal travails. Readying a new album for release this month, Mill has never sounded as ferocious or intense as he did on Saturday.

Megan Thee Stallion Gallops On

No doubt MTS is fierce. The electrifying Houston rapper ran fast and furiously through a happily lewd showcase of her hits from “Hot Girl Shit,” a back-to-back “Realer” and “Freak Nasty,” a slice of her risqué “WAP” smash with Cardi B and “Simon Says,” complete with a Philly-dedicated intro of Gamble & Huff-star Billy Paul’s “Me & Mrs. Jones.” All good. The only problem was, save for a smidge of balladry, much of MTS sounded the same, or felt the same when spliced together. Is too much MTS too much of a good thing? Then again, if you got bored of her music — even for a moment — her dancing and that of her Hot Girl crew offered up quite the floorshow.

A Return to Choreography

Along with Megan Thee Stallion, this year’s MIA welcomed back highly visual, dancing R&B/hip hop artists and their costumed choreographed crews, such as an all-yellow wearing Tinashe & Co., Doja Cat (whom I love, but whose flashy set was ultimately unmemorable) and a decked-in-purple Latto whose crew rivaled MTS for ass-smacking choreography. Choreo wasn’t just for the women of MIA as charismatic rapper Bobby Shmurda’s vibrant set had an odd lot dancing cast that included women in tutus and hype men in angel wings stalking the stage.

Sunday’s Liberty Stage — Murderer’s Row

If you only stood before MIA’s “second” stage, the Liberty, all day Sunday, you got educated as to the wiliest up-and-coming hip hop/R&B presences in 2022. Kentucky-drawling trap rapper and Yo Gotti crew member EST Gee, gruff Detroit floacist 42 Dugg, and newly-minted R&B/Hip-Hop airplay chart-topper (with “Wockesha”), Moneybagg Yo each made impressive showings at MIA. Moneybagg, in particular, showed off his pop =-hop chops for sophisticated, street-worthy material. Still, the best Liberty set belonged to Lil Durk, still basking in the glow of a No. 1 collab album, “The Voice of the Heroes,” with Lil Baby. With his yellow locks and elastic voice, Durk ran through bass-bin rattling screamo, simmering jazz odyssey interludes and gently pulsing rock-hop like he owned the room. Or the grass. Guaranteed he headlines the main stage in 2022.

The Biebs Abides

Justin Bieber’s MIA-ending, Sunday night set, was a welcome (and dry, as it drizzled all day) R&B chill to a day of rough rap. Topped by fireworks, literal and figurative, Biebs’ set often felt like a Khaled-like variety show with its host of guests — “Holy” with Chance the Rapper, “Don’t Go” with Don Toliver, “Essence (Remix)” with Wizkid, “Love You Different” with BEAM, the pleasantly omnipresent “Stay” with The Kid LAROI, “Intentions” with Quavo — but the rush of friends never overwhelmed the vocalist.

After blowing the cobwebs from his vocals (an acoustic guitar-strewn number such as “Hold Tight” sounded strained), Bieber soared through the soulful falsetto-laden, diamond-encrusted pop of “Sorry” and “Lonely.” He summoned a phalanx of fans to the front of the stage for a spirited “Baby,” and ended the evening with the salty, slow-grooving “Peaches” while trying to heal a crowd of kids who have spent the last 18 months wrestling with COVID-19 and social and racial injustice. “All of us in this room are going through so much pain,” Bieber started, before offering up the balm of “Anyone.” As he closed out the last stanza to his holy healing ballad, fireworks blared and MIA wrapped its 10th anniversary with a sense of glee and true passion.

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