Macklemore, Kendrick Lamar shine at troubled WAKEstock

by Ryan Snyder

Follow Ryan on Twitter @YESRyan

The ceiling may not be able to hold Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, but neither can substandard crowd-control barricades and ratchet straps hold back the unrelenting encroachment of 3,600-plus Wake Forest students.

The first annual WAKEstock nearly fell apart a little over midway through a hellacious showing by the wildly popular indie hip-hop duo from Seattle — owners of the song that ruled the Billboard Hot 100 for all of February — when the unruly rowdy crowd threatened to burst forth into the pit only minutes into their co-headlining set. The first signs of trouble at the Student Union-organized concert came almost immediately after Macklemore & Ryan Lewis took the stage with backup singer Ray Dalton and trumpet player Owuor Arunga to the Malcolm Gladwell-inspired “10,000 Hours.” Campus security noticed that a seam in the barrier was bowed out unnaturally, a compromise blamed on the slope of Davis Field where the show was taking place and the torque that the audience’s oppressive mass created against it.

It was an exercise in contrast from the start: the pugnacious temperament of the crowd versus the backpack-y positivity of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’s music. Despite the self-effacing nature of a lot of his rhymes, Macklemore’s hip hop is pointed and timely, and Ryan Lewis’s beats are a durable rejoinder to his sober delivery. As a duo, they’re closer in spirit to Slug and Ant of Atmosphere (and not merely because they’re white), but they’re easily the most successful emcee/DJ combo since Gang Starr. Where Gang Starr flaunted their taste for brand names in “The Mall,” however, Macklemore embraces his King Raggedy status with “Thift Shop.”

By the time Macklemore had solicited the crowd for suitably trashy attire to adorn that game-breaking megahit, most of the 27 university police and contracted security personnel, along with a handful of student volunteers, were braced against the barrier. Bodies started to spill over into the pit as some of the uniformed officers between the audience and the stage began pleading for the performance to be shut down. They would eventually get their wish, but not right away.

The first of Macklemore’s dives into the audience came as the bow-tied Dalton stepped up to sing the hook to “Can’t Hold Us,” an ill-advised plunge likely based on the presumption that his pause to address the deteriorating situation at the front, followed by the mollifying and earnest pro-gay entreaty “Same Love,” had assuaged the situation. It wasn’t immediately apparent that the root cause stemmed from the general unruliness of the well-oiled middle and back thirds of the crowd — the location of the highest concentration of discarded airplane bottles after the show — that arrived after openers Natalie Stovall and Black Girls, and during his set.

In reality, the scene at the audience’s core was ostensibly the most perilous, with one officer having pushed his way into the gridlock to extract someone who had passed out, yet was still upright from the sheer crush of bodies. Those at the front of the crowd immediately against the barriers could be heard yelling from the anguish of being caught directly between the proverbial irresistible force — the crowd behind them — and the immovable object — the security-reinforced aluminum stanchions pushing against them from the front.

Macklemore’s second trip into the crowd at the end of “White Walls” would be the one that forced the hands of those with the authority to pull the plug. In a set that broached the issues of the new civil rights, gross materialism and compromised sobriety with uncommon candor, it was a rap song about old-school Cadillacs that would be the final straw. He mounted the stage once again as Ryan Lewis initiated the minor-key horn and key builds of “Wing$,” the duo’s love letter to Air Jordans, as uniformed police waited at the back. Macklemore was deep in the second verse, commanding, “Are you stupid, don’t crease ‘em, just leave ‘em in that box,” as the power is cut and the boo-birds came out in force.

The group that had just arrived from California to put on this show were cut off with three songs left on their set list — “Victory Lap,” “And We Dance” and “Irish Celebration,” the closing two going deep into their catalog — with the crowd growing angrier with every increasingly antagonizing public address. “You have a minute-forty-five before we shut this down,” a student leader said. A few minutes later, the deadline was put at less than a minute. “Five minutes,” she said later with the tone of an exasperated parent trying to bridle an unruly toddler.

Tweets from the Macklemore camp the next day placed the blame on barricades they claimed were graded for 2,000 people (though they gave no source), while a statement from the production contractor Audio & Light stated that that very barricade had been used at an event for “20,000 alcohol-fueled dance music and metal fans” and that they were “quite capable of protecting the stage, its performers and security,” though the company also seemed to undermine that assertion by also stating the gap was caused by an aluminum joining pin that broke under the stress of the crowd.

Either way, there was no hope for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis to finish out, and the balance of the event rested in whether organizers could rein in the crowd enough for Kendrick Lamar to take the stage. The idea itself seemed highly improbably considering the results of informal polling that country starlet Natalie Stovall, the evening’s first act, conducted at the end of her set: The mention of Macklemore engendered hearty applause, but Kendrick Lamar’s name brought out an absolutely rapacious fervor from a crowd that was less than half its eventual peak at the time.

In the hour and five minutes that passed between the plug being pulled on Macklemore and the moment that Lamar would pull up behind the stage in a white escort van, expletives and trash were hurled at the stage, reports of injuries and violence leaked out of radio-equipped security personnel; and only when appeals for calm ceased altogether did the crowd erode to the point that actual headway could be made. Backed only by DJ Ali, Lamar’s set commenced at 10:50 p.m. with a decidedly different tenor; his blase approach to racial identity and pro-intemperance anthems like “Swimming Pools (Drank)” had a strangely concerting effect on the crowd as hands were thrust upward rather than forward.

Lamar did more than flesh out his verse on A$AP Rocky’s “Fu*kin’s Problems”; he spat bars by Drake, Rocky and 2 Chainz in his own dispassionate cadence to the Canadian-born beats, and he copped Tupac’s demonstrative flow on the Janet Jackson duet “Poetic Justice.” His best moments, however, came when the music dropped out altogether. His a capella turn on the autobiographical “I Am” hushed the remnants of the crowd altogether to savor his laser-guided dactyls, codified within the reverse chronology of his own story. It was a drop-the-mic-and-walk-off moment, but given the circumstances, an encore was as much remunerative as it was courteous.

There’s no doubt that, despite the sterling performances by the headliners, WAKEstock itself was a rare misstep among the recent history of the university’s spring concerts. Lupe Fiasco at the Joel, Ben Harper and then Sara Bareilles at Wait Chapel were all smoother executions. It might be that concerts ending in -stock are doomed to misfortune, or maybe organizers simply underestimated the popularity of a certain indie hip-hop duo from Seattle.