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Review: At Summer Jam, Some Old-School Bark, but Little Bite

Migos’s punchy and effective set here proved it with a quick tour of hits and not quite hits that maintained some of the night’s highest energy. When the trio rapped and sing-rapped live to Auto-Tune, it was unerringly beautiful. Stop trying their craft.


Desiigner, delivering to his fans.

Chad Batka for The New York Times

Hot 97, more than most radio stations, blurs the line between fact and opinion, and the dust-up between Mr. Darden and Migos was the latest in a series of incidents between the station and some of the stars whose music it plays relentlessly. The biggest of these came at Summer Jam 2012, when another host, Peter Rosenberg, suggested that Nicki Minaj had perhaps gone a little too far into the pop world. Ms. Minaj, who was scheduled to perform, instead bolted.

That beef was smoothed over, but perhaps still lingers, based on what unfolded on Sunday night. Remy Ma, who has put Ms. Minaj in her sights in the last year, had a slot early in the night (alongside Fat Joe), and turned it into an almost-all-hands meeting of female rappers, old and young: Young M.A., Cardi B, Lil’ Kim, MC Lyte, Rah Digga, the Lady of Rage, followed by Queen Latifah, who performed her 1993 anti-sexism anthem, “U.N.I.T.Y.,” while everyone swayed. This was hilariously petty — a convocation of female rappers preaching unity while brought together by someone with divisive intent. That was made clear when Remy Ma followed “U.N.I.T.Y.” with “Shether,” her feisty song insulting Ms. Minaj, while anti-Minaj memes played on the large screen overhead.

That was old-school Summer Jam, taut and pointed. A lesser flicker came when the former Drake antagonists Meek Mill and Tory Lanez appeared onstage together. But unlike the great Summer Jam rumbles of years past — Jay Z skewering Prodigy in 2001, the 2004 chair-tossing rumble involving 50 Cent — these moments were relatively tame, like attacking Godzilla with a fly swatter.


Young M.A. was a presence, too.

Chad Batka for The New York Times

Still, the event had a bit of old-fashioned bite — Summer Jam, at its best, will always have a touch. It will also always have R&B with varying degrees of shirtlessness — Trey Songz (partial) and Chris Brown (full) — and a military-precise injection of dance hall. This year, it came from Konshens, Charly Black and Shaggy, all in 10 minutes.

And there will be unannounced guests, though this year’s list was thin. DJ Khaled, who was billed as one of the main acts, is usually able to conjure miracles, but rather than bring out Jay Z and Beyoncé for “Shining,” Drake on “For Free” or Justin Bieber and Chance the Rapper for “I’m the One,” DJ Khaled himself appeared, briefly, during Migos’s set, accompanied only by his infant son, Asahd.

Finally, there will always be New York rap chestnuts, songs that are part of the city’s folk history: Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Part II,” performed during Joey Badass’s set; Cam’ron and Juelz Santana’s “Oh Boy,” performed during French Montana’s set, with ASAP Rocky taking Cam’rons verse; and DMX’s “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem,” performed during Chris Brown’s set.

Much of the early part of the show, along with the afternoon up-and-comers concert held in the stadium parking lot, was devoted to local rappers aspiring to have an evergreen New York classic of their own. Casanova came closest, with the gloriously unhinged, Uncle Murdaesque “Don’t Run,” which jolted the crowd on the afternoon stage, and again later when he came out to perform it on the main stage. A Boogie’s piano ballad “Drowning” was effective, as was Young M.A.’s “OOOUUU,” though the rest of their sets were coolly received.

Cool wasn’t an option for Desiigner, who delivered 15 minutes of outrageous sunshine on the main stage, jumping into the photo pit, then onto the barrier between stage and crowd, then over that into the crowd, all the way to the middle of the stadium floor, where he performed standing on another barrier, being held upright by a security guard.

Watching young rappers try to build a legacy in fits and starts was a reminder of how challenging it can be to embed yourself firmly in the genre’s collective memory. This year, Summer Jam concluded with a tribute to the Notorious B.I.G., a young rapper who was killed 20 years ago, with an outsize legacy that’s only grown.

It was a joyous and moving gathering of old friends, collaborators and lovers: Faith Evans, Mase, the Lox, Lil’ Kim, Total, 112, Bizzy Bone, Doug E. Fresh, Junior M.A.F.I.A., Mister Cee. (But curiously, no Sean Combs.) The music was lustrous and a little chaotic, just as it used to be. But coming at the end of a long show that displayed the many ways hip-hop has moved on, it felt like a homegoing not just for one man, but for an old form of craft, and for a city whose role in hip-hop’s grand narrative has withered.

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