Waiting for the only “modern” hip-hop headliner, Rae Sremmurd, to start, I listened to the DJ do his set and thought about how far I’d come in a year. A year earlier I was in the same place taking in Migos as a Joe Budden-esque old head who hated the new wave of hip-hop. In a year I’d learned to appreciate, and in some cases love, the production on trap music. I don’t always love the lyrics, but I’ve grown to love bangers just as much as bars. As the DJ played on, I found myself wanting to jump around, but I kept myself composed. Nobody wants to see an almost-40 guy jumping around to trap.

As I’ve mentioned before, the thing with these trap artists is they tend to follow the same formula- dreads, similar delivery, similar production. And a lot of them lack stage presence. They tend to focus their crowd interraction around some chant that they repeat throughout their show when they don’t know what to say. “Sremm Life!”, “Mi-go!”

So when it comes to Rae Sremmurd I wanted to see what made them different. What makes them stars? What makes them special? What makes them unique? What makes them real artists and performers?

They started with No Type and No Flex Zone (which meant the mosh pits were open). They’re both great songs and I could see immediately why these guys are superstars. The show was good so far, but great? Nope. Just “meh”.

After a few forgettable songs, they performed Buckets. Another crazy song. I’m not a fan of drug talk, but musically it has some of the craziest production I’ve heard in a long time. The crowd went berserk and I didn’t blame them.

Then came one of my favourite songs of the night- Swang. Although Rae Sremmurd follows some of the same trap formula as other groups and artists, you can see some small ways in which they set themselves apart, like Sway Lee hitting those high notes on on the hook. That’s something you probably won’t hear another group try. At this point they brought some girls onto the stage and it was a party. I considered going deep into the crowd to get the full experience, but as I was about to move I saw a kid coming out of the crowd with blood streaming down his face from being elbowed. No thanks. I’ll stay where I am.

The highlight for me was Unforgettable and Guatemala; this is my kind of music. It was cool to hear him mix up the lyrics and sing, “We can get away to Ottawa.” Sway Lee has the perfect voice for these kinds of island vibes. I’d love to hear more of this from them. When it comes to what makes Rae Sremmurd different, this is it. With today’s music everyone is a vocalist, and the bar is pretty low when it comes to vocals, but Sway Lee is probably the best singer out of the new crop of artists that blur the lines between hip-hop and R&B. And his voice allows him to go into genres like Reggae that Migos and other group can’t explore.

Sway Lee of Rae Sremmurd performs on the City Stage at RBC Bluesfest. (photo credit: Mark Horton)

Before closing they performed Black Beatles and Powerglide. During Powerglide they basically stopped performing and just started dancing around while the song played. Then again on Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame Swae Lee ran back and forth in front of the stage and got into the crowd with fans while his vocals played in the background. I’m usually a snob when it comes to people performing over backtrack vocals, but with these guys I didn’t care. They were putting on a show and pouring their hearts out. This is the difference between Rae Sremmurd in 2018 and Migos in 2017. Rae Sremmurd are pretty good live performers, Migos aren’t. Actually, let me correct that Swae Lee is a good live performer. I don’t know what Slim Jxmmi was doing. While Sway Lee was losing his mind at the end of the show, Slim Jxmmi was just standing there like a prop. I can see why people are saying it’s only a matter of time before Sway Lee goes solo. I probably would’ve enjoyed the show more if he was by himself.

The show ended kind of abruptly. Perplexing Pegasus played while they were still interacting with fans so the show just kind of ended and that was it. An underwhelming finish.

When it comes to these trap shows I try to look at it through two lenses. I try to put myself in the shoes of a 18-25 year old today and I look at it through the lens of an almost-40 grown man. Looking at it through the lens of someone growing up in this culture today, this concert was “lit”. Rae Sremmurd makes great music. My younger self would’ve been a huge fan, drug talk and all. I would’ve been all up in the mosh pit. If I look at this show through the lens of someone who grew up in the Golden Era of hip-hop, and who was trained to value wordplay and great content, this show was good. Even when Missy Elliott or Busta Rymes did a party record they still had to be able to rap. But it’s unfair to measure acts like Rae Sremmurd against that standard.

Did I see what makes Rae Sremmurd special? Aside from great vocals and great production, Sway Lee is a great performer. The jury is still out on whether or not they’re the Black Beatles or going to the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame. I mean they have the numbers. They have multiple songs with over 100 million streams. But the legends are legends because they pioneered a new style or they did it better than everyone else. I can appreciate their music, but I didn’t see enough to be wowed. It was a good show, definitely better than Migos or Lil’ Yachty, and Sway Lee is more talented than a lot of artists today, but in the end we were left with a good show, not a great one.

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