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I'd been attracted to the event because of YYU, a producer whose dreamy, stuttering sample-based tunes have sometimes been grouped under the vaporwave umbrella; I knew that wouldn't happen, given that a couple days previous YYU was scheduled for midnight, but I still wanted to check out the way-off-the-beaten-path event. After standing about awkwardly and admiring the enormous and mostly empty space, I took off—I did have schedule to follow. Next I'd hoped to see an unofficial showcase curated by Topshelf and Count Your Lucky Stars—two indie labels that have helped foster the current class of underground emo bands—and it was so out of the way that it was actually fairly close to the previous event. That said, I just ended up repeating my mistake: I got to the venue, a kickboxing school, long before anyone else had bothered to show up.
Fortunately the day improved from there, and I got to catch three great sets: Illinois power-pop group Shoes, formerly local one-woman synth-pop act Fielded, and a rapper who probably didn't need to play SXSW, Kendrick Lamar.
Lamar released one of last year's biggest critical hits, Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City, which debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 in the fall, and MTV recently named the Compton rapper the "Hottest MC in the Game." By all sorts of measurements he's on top of the rap world, which made it a little odd that he bothered to appear at a festival that's historically been a place to discover bands. To be fair, SXSW has since become a monolithic event where well-known artists show up to push brand-new projects—like, say, Snoop Lion, who performed a Vice party the night before Vice released its documentary on him, Reincarnated, which basically promoted his forthcoming album of the same name. Lamar has already accomplished so much, and his album has earned so much critical favor, that his set at SXSW felt like just another tour stop.
Not that a tour stop from Lamar is anything to sniff at. He took the stage after midnight, and his entrance was especially impressive to me given that I'd spent to much of my time at SXSW seeing acts that receive little if any buzz or attention—seeing thousands of people wave their hands in the air and belt out the intro to "Backseat Freestyle" was a big change! Lamar likes to do crowd work during his shows, which didn't go so well during his performance at Pitchfork Music Festival last summer; back then he wasn't the well-known phenomenon he is today, and his attempts to trade rhymes with an audience that had mostly come to gawk at Lady Gaga fell a little flat. This time it seemed to take no effort for Lamar to rope the crowd into his songs, and often he barely had to encourage the crowd to join in—he'd pull the mike away from his face, lift one hand up as if conducting a symphony, and a rush of voices surged to fill in the blanks. Lamar played it cool throughout, effortlessly sliding across the stage and dropping rhymes with an ease that sometimes made his set feel like a late-night freestyle session among friends that had kicked into high gear. The MC took plenty of time to give props to his friends—he brought out Atlanta rapper T.I. and his pals from the Black Hippy crew—and constantly thanked his fans.
Fielded and Shoes also had appreciative (but significantly smaller) crowds. Shoes played in the afternoon on a small outdoor patio behind a clean-cut pub, and they managed to overcome the glaring sun and heat with their catchy, sweetly straightforward power pop. Their delightful set made an impression on the crowd, which cheered for an encore—the most unanimous such request during my time at the festival. Hours later Fielded (aka Lindsay Powell) performed her bewitching experimental synth-pop at a bear bar, slinking about the small stage and singing in a booming voice that would climax in an occasional anguished roar. Powell tested out some lush, dark, and hooky tracks off her forthcoming Ninety Thirty Thirty, which Captcha will release next month and which also fit the dark, cold room's atmosphere.
Friday ended up being quite a success, especially considering my early scheduling snafus. Though I had my reservations about spending my time at SXSW checking out someone as popular as Kendrick Lamar, I can see why folks line up for the marquee names—you know what you're getting, which can be pretty clutch. I've got a few more thoughts on Friday's activities, which you can read below—keep an eye out for the rest of the Reader's SXSW coverage as the fest winds down.
My official seapunk count: 12.
Most confusing thing I ate: A chicken and waffle taco, which felt less like a taco and more like a waffle folded around boneless fried chicken.
Best thing to see at night: A display of circular lights on that change color whenever someone steps on the center of each one (that's it below).