This year’s BUKU Music + Art Project was full of surprises. The festival grounds, previously contained to Mardi Gras World and its adjacent pier, expanded inland across the train tracks. That’s where the festival’s massive centerpiece, the Power Plant Stage, was housed this year, alongside food and drink vendors, live graffiti murals and a colorful nook called the Front Yard stage, wedged into a back corner.
Three of BUKU’s top-billed rappers (Lil Uzi Vert, Ski Mask the Slump God, Famous Dex) cancelled this year and headliners Migos showed up over 40 minutes late to their set, forcing festival staff to explain and re-explain why fan’s favorite artists weren’t showing up. For EDM lovers (the majority of the BUKU populace) the hip-hop cancellations were only a minor disappointment, but rap fans were forced to look elsewhere for entertainment when the artists they’d paid to see disappeared from the bill. This led many to the Front Yard, where a lineup full of local hip-hop acts showed off their talent opposite the gaudy light shows and booming sub amps of the mainstage. Local acts saved an otherwise disappointing BUKU Fest.
Pink Room Project christened the Front Yard Friday with two high-energy sets. DJs rotated behind the decks and alternated between club remixes of other artists’ tracks and original material. The centerpiece of their performance was an enclosure, fenced on three sides, about ten yards in front of the stage. Pink Room co-founder Brandon Ares used this area as his own personal auxiliary stage, rattling the chain links like a prisoner as he rocked the small but enthusiastic crowd.
Later that night, Freewater took the Front Yard for two sets of their own. Like Pink Room, Freewater is an amorphous New Orleans collective that blends hip-hop elements with visual art and fashion. But Freewater’s set was more straight-ahead trap than Pink Room’s. They showcased flexible flows and decent bars, and their house music was much more exciting than the Drake remixes Pink Room recycled before both their sets, but their performance itself didn’t feel as fresh as Pink Room’s did.
Upbeat Academy took the Front Yard Saturday, showcasing talent from of high school aged rappers and producers forging the beginnings of their music careers. The performances were a mixed bag, but the Upbeat artists all showed plenty of potential. The onstage banner announcing Lil Uzi Vert’s last-minute cancellation stated that a portion of his fee would now be going to the Upbeat Academy Foundation. Performers at the Dragon’s Den’s weekly CHURCH series closed out the Front Yard with three sets throughout Saturday night.
Outside the Front Yard, local artists continued to shine. Avant-garde producer and Upbeat Academy instructor AF the Naysayer and punk-jazz quartet Yung Vul put on a dynamic, genre-spanning set at the Wharf stage, and mad genius producer Suicideyear performed behind closed doors on the VIP roof.
The real local headliner, however, was Jay Electronica, who took the indoor Ballroom Stage, across the tracks from the Front Yard and the Power Plant. His set was bizarre and enigmatic, much like his career has been for the past decade. After releasing his 15-minute, drumless opus Act I: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge) via MySpace in 2007, he dropped a sporadic string of lyrical masterpieces. Unfortunately, none of these ever amounted to a full project, a fact he acknowledged on Saturday by referring to himself as “the greatest rapper of all time to never put out an album.”
Jay flirted with self-deprecating humor more than once during his BUKU set, at one point describing interactions with people who know him for being Erykah Badu’s baby daddy but not for being a rapper. Mostly, though, he stuck to his super-serious manual, peppering his tracks with long a capella runs and cutting them short to rant about the CIA doing 9/11 and the Army Corps of Engineers blowing up the levees.
The strangest moment of his set came when he invited a quarter of the crowd to jump the barricade and join him onstage, provoking an onslaught of ecstasy-fueled, neon-clad teens to swarm the rapper. Phone cameras held high, they stood around the rap god, seemingly unphased by the surreal moment.
Jay also invited three rappers to spit some bars of their own onstage, with the caveat that they had to have been born and raised in New Orleans. The lucky three were a fresh-faced 20-somthing who went by Lil’ 504, a self-proclaimed “white high school SoundCloud rapper” and a woman in ski goggles who prefaced her freestyle by letting the crowd know how fucked up she was. By a two-to-one majority, they elected to go acapella despite being offered the chance to rhyme over a J Dilla beat. Ski goggle girl took the crown hands-down despite an early slip-up, and Jay claimed he’d never heard an audience reaction like the one she’d received in any of the other cities where he’d tried this tactic.\
Hometown love turned out to be the overarching theme of Jay’s set, despite its initially gloomy overtones. After closing with his biggest hit, “Exhibit C,” he stayed on to mingle with the crowd and soak up the good will he still commands in his native city. Out-of-town rappers may have bailed on BUKU, but New Orleans’ own made up for it.
Beyond the local acts who helped salvage festival missteps, SZA and the Soulection crew were highlights. Despite the former’s on-stage accident which resulted in a set-ending sprained ankle, the 2017 Grammys most nominated woman and Top Dawg Entertainment siren did not disappoint. With extended renditions of songs like “Supermodel” and “Go Gina” (thoughtfully accompanied by visuals from Martin), SZA electrified BUKU’s first night. At the Wharf stage, Soulection presented a pastiche of selectors featuring Sango, Whooligan and Esta, all of whom kept the dancefloor thumpin’ with some of the most creative mashups of the weekend (even Soulja Boy’s “Crank That” became tolerable).