Most package tours and concerts just feature a ton of performers to get you to attend through sheer demographic will. Usually I'll look at a lineup of five artists or more, then add up what I'd be willing to pay for each of them individually (say, $5-10), shrug my shoulders, and figure that I'm getting a good deal if the ticket price is cheaper than the sum total.
But the show that essentially closes out the season this Saturday at DTE isn't like that. All four of its performers would be worth seeing even if they were just headlining their own shows solo, and each should draw their own passionate fan bases. Vince Staples, Danny Brown, Tyler, the Creator, and A$AP Rocky join forces to bring fresh, young hip-hop to the Clarkston amphitheater. All of them have already hit the big time to some extent, but they've also all displayed the potential to get even better, meaning hip-hop's next festival headlining crossover superstar could very well come from this stage.
Staples, who you may have seen at the Shelter back in July, is probably the least-known on the bill (at least in the Midwest). He recently moved up from being "that guy who hangs with Earl Sweatshirt and Mac Miller" to a rising star in his own right, putting out his debut album, Summertime '06, a few months ago to critical acclaim. Summertime wasn't much of a commercial success (its jaunty-sounding title belied its dark, cynical, unflinching observations of South Central L.A.), but every song spotlights Staples' immense talent as a storyteller. He portrays his hometown like a wasteland, surveying the damage done by white supremacy and the dangers it wrought while mourning his dead friends and reflecting on his responsibility as a survivor. Staples makes the kind of uncompromising rap that could totally bomb at a venue filled with mostly young, white suburban kids, but that doesn't make him any less skilled.
Following Staples is Danny Brown, and thank god, because I feel like he's been totally off the map for way too long now. The hipster pick for best rapper to ever come out of Detroit hasn't released an album for going on two years now, and he might be in danger of losing some of that under-the-radar hometown favor to Dej Loaf (who's building plenty of buzz on her own), but Brown still looks and sounds like nobody else in the game. His hair unkempt and his front teeth missing, he raps in his off-kilter, whiny voice with an unhinged demonic mania that even peers like Future and Young Thug haven't quite been able to reach.
On XXX, Brown's mainstream debut, he was an explosion of enthusiasm and power, but he didn't yet know how to quite harness that energy, lashing out indiscriminately like a rabid dog on a chain and showing off fierce fury without always hitting the right marks. The turning point was "Grown Up," his 2012 single that still stands out as his best work and brought a more reflective, almost nostalgic tint to his idiosyncrasies. That song paved the way for Brown's most recent record, Old, which combined pounding bangers that blew up crowds at festivals with tracks that took a step inside and explored Brown as a person. At 34, with lots of experience at street-level but little in the spotlight, Brown provides a unique perspective in hip-hop. He's practically a sage old man compared to the up-and-comers that he tours with, and he knows what it means to struggle and grind for a long time before actually finding any kind of fame.
Second-billed is Tyler, the Creator. I'll be honest: My first reaction when I saw the announcement for this show was, "Shit, I'd love to see three of those guys, but I'm not about to go and deal with a bunch of 14-year-old Tyler fans." Tyler came up as part of Odd Future, the anarchic teenaged L.A. hip-hop collective that also included Earl and Frank Ocean. He and his cohorts scored viral fame and a cult following by being unafraid to fuck up the status quo and offend pretty much everyone who cared about anything.
I haven't listened to Tyler since Goblin came out when I was in high school. "Yonkers" was the big hit from that record, with its music video featuring Tyler devouring a cockroach, spitting dementedly vicious verses (no chorus), and rocking this mad-scientist-experiment beat that sounded like the Neptunes were being dropped into a vat of flesh-burning acid. Tyler, as de facto leader of Odd Future, quickly became notorious for his extremely misogynist lyrics about rape, his unapologetic use of the word "faggot," and just his general inclination to provoke people and act like an asshole whenever anyone was watching.
Once I got a little older, I stopped caring about Tyler for reasons that I hope are self-evident. Recently, though, he's been back in the news, because organizations worldwide are trying to keep him from coming into their countries. This year, he canceled an Australian tour after pressure from activists, and he was outright banned from the U.K.
This might seem like just comeuppance, and I'm not sure if I can help taking a little bit of pleasure from seeing Tyler shut out of international venues, but the censorship and hypocrisy problems are obvious. All of these countries allow intentionally shocking artists like Eminem play their shows (Odd Future's New Zealand ban actually kept them out of a festival headlined by Shady himself), and Tyler's visited England several times before, with the country only now choosing to ban him based on lyrics that were written years ago.
I'm told by recent press (like the fantastic piece Julianne Escobedo Shepherd wrote for Jezebel) that Tyler has matured, at least to some extent. I'm inclined to believe that, but I'm hesitant to believe that his target demographic is anything more than frustrated teenage douchebags. So maybe you need a wild card like that — maybe Tyler will pull something "outrageous" that no one else will do and it will be cool or interesting rather than forced and offensive — but it's still clear that, as creative as he can be, Tyler will always still be the immature homophobe in the public eye unless he gets some unlikely second chance to make another impression.
Finally, headlining the night is Harlem's A$AP Rocky, supporting his record AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP, which came out last summer. Leading off the A$AP Mob collective — which also contains A$AP Ferg, A$AP Yams (RIP), and a bunch of other guys whom you've justifiably never heard of — Rocky and his crew have been on the forefront of innovation in not just trap music, but areas like fashion as well.
When Rocky released his official debut, LONG.LIVE.A$AP, back in 2013, I thought Rocky might be the next Jay-Z. Even putting aside superficial similarities in the rappers' origin stories (going from New York dealers to hip-hop millionaires), LONG.LIVE.A$AP had a Blueprint-esque knack for killer collaborations, from the 2 Chainz hook on "Fuckin' Problems" to the Skrillex cameo to the whistling, easygoing, peak-Hit-Boy beat on "Goldie." From Day One Flacko had charisma, style, and — most critically — talent.
Rocky stepped away from the more pop-oriented stuff on AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP, but he asserted himself as a curator with a potent creative vision. Even though he's not necessarily one of the most purely talented rappers out there, Rocky once again played the role by surrounding himself with some of the best producers and stars in the business while also discovering hidden gems like singer Joe Fox (a man with an ethereal voice who Rocky found playing guitar on the streets of London) and Rod Stewart (whose long forgotten "In a Broken Dream" he unearthed and used as a hook on the single "Everyday").
AT.LONG.LAST.A$AP is, in some ways, just one of several incredible works to come out in what's been a brilliant year for hip-hop, but Rocky is still one of the leaders of that exceptional pack. He's coming off a huge, just-below-the-headliners performance at the traditionally alt-rockist Lollapalooza. And after only a couple of albums, he's already big enough to be the main draw at a 15,000 seat venue, even if he needs a little help from some friends. There's still a lot of uncertain terrain for him and all his supporting acts to navigate if they want to get even bigger, but they've all shown us that they have the ambition and at least flashes of the talent they need to cement themselves on top.
A$AP Rocky and co. play DTE Energy Music Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 26 starting at 6:30 p.m. Tickets range from $35.60 to $89.20 (including fees).