By Jay Cridlin
Chance the Rapper may present himself as this humble, grateful, spiritual force of communal good. But you don’t wheel out on stage on a minibike, backed by geysers of flame and a mini gospel choir, unless you’ve got the chutzpah to headline a festival.
And with that rip-roaring entrance on Friday, Chance gave Wild 94.1′s Last Damn Show the warm welcome back it deserved.
Once an annual staple of Tampa Bay’s hip-hop calendar, Last Damn Show returned to Amalie Arena after a five-year hiatus, drawing more than 9,000 fans for a show toplined by one of the industry’s more transformational figures. Wild could’ve been forgiven for easing back in a little slower, but nope, like Chance on his motorbike, the festival roared back strong, with a diverse lineup of Billboard superstars past (Ludacris) and present (Migos), as well as the man to whom some have ceded rap’s future: Chancelor Bennett.
Backed by his live band the Social Experiment in one of his final shows of 2017, the Chicago kid (and future Saturday Night Live host) whooped and hooted and stutter-stepped through a nearly hourlong set heavy on gospel themes and musicality. That backing choir gave heavenly muscle to Blessings (and its show-closing reprise), a glorious All We Got and a Kanye West mini-medley (including Waves and Ultralight Beam), as did enthusiastic trumpeter Nico Segal on Sunday Candy.
"We're having a lot of fun, if you can't tell," Chance said.
In truth, Chance’s set seemed awfully familiar to — if a little shorter than — the same one he gave 14,000 fans on the same Amalie stage in June, including DJ Khaled’s I’m the One and his arena-shaking No Problem. But he’s too joyful a live act to let anything he does feel too repetitive. No one ever suffered from too much Chance the Rapper in their lives.
In contrast to Chance’s command of the mic and his band, Migos didn’t even arrive at the building, much less hit the stage, until a good 45 minutes past their mark — a bummer in any case, but especially given the lineup’s fairly late scratch of Lil Uzi Vert, an equally of-the-moment artist who could’ve squeezed a full set into that lull. No doubt many fans were wondering if the same fate had befallen Migos, with zero advance warning given. The wait was excruciating and dang near party-killing; bless the poor Wild DJs charged with keeping the crowd lit through multiple spins of Bodak Yellow.
Things didn’t get much better when Quavo, Offset and Takeoff hit the stage — the power cut out two minutes into their first track, Slippery. But they rebounded and settled into a loose groove, keeping the volume at a max but the body language at a medium on hits like T-Shirt and Gucci Mane’s I Got the Bag, before pumping it it all way up for closer Bad and Boujee. Was the high of that chart-topping smash enough to compensate for their 45-minute delay and 20-minute set? Ask Migos, if you can find them.
One guy who needed no help in the set-stretching department was Dirty South hit machine Ludacris. Ever the charismatic cat, the rubber-tongued rapper was the night’s designated party starter, shouting out “all the alcoholics … and all the weed smokers” in the building and keeping the crowd on its feet with the drop of each blockbuster single. Luda showed the 813 and 727 a little love before Area Codes (better luck next time, Pasco County), and had the whole arena rapping along for hits Southern Hospitality, Money Maker and Fergie’s Glamorous. The drop for Usher’s Yeah! was like a fire alarm, causing the whole lower bowl to start bending and flexing and whipping their arms in the air; while the booming Move Bitch made the stands shudder like a bomb just went off.
The night’s undercards went two for three. Gospel rap superstar Lecrae interspersed his trappy but uplifting songs with inspirational mini-sermons about the power of persevering through pain and finding joy in being young and broke. Atlanta singer-rapper 24hrs, on the other hand, mumbled through 10 minutes at the outset, barely enough time to leave any impression whatsoever.
But then there was Colombian-Canadian singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez, who performed with possessed, theatrical fury and blunt, diaristic honesty — her set alone was worth braving rush hour trafficking get inside early.
“I want to say thank you to whoever’s idea it was to have at least one female artist on this show,” Reyez said, slyly needling the rest of the all-male lineup before her flame-spewing feminist industry screed Gatekeeper.
After Reyez closed her set with an a cappella rendition of her single Figures, Wild program director Orlando Davis came on stage to announce the station would be bringing her back for its Wild Splash festival next spring.
“Jessie Reyez has something to say,” Davis said. “She’s gonna represent for the ladies the way a boss lady should.”
This is the power of a festival like Last Damn Show, and a big reason why it’s so good to have it back. Back in the day, artists like Kanye West and Drake filled the Jessie Reyez slot, that of the unknown upstart opening for a buffet of more established stars. Seeing them live on the big stage in prime time can feel like a coming-out party.
Chance the Rapper was just such an outsider at one point — and in some ways, he still is today. Yet now look where he is.
"Has anybody ever heard me on the radio?" he chuckled. "Shout out to that."
A big shout out, indeed. It's nice to have Last Damn Show back.