A quick scan of this year's Virgin Mobile FreeFest reveals the type of lineup we've come to expect from the annual concert at Merriweather Post Pavilion: Smart, on-the-nose and balanced -- as long as you're the type of music fan who takes pride in genre open-mindedness and staying in the loop of new faces and sounds.
Taken on a case-by-case basis, the lineup (which is fluid, meaning there could be more artists added) is all over the place: There's house hero Kaskade, feeling-himself-on-Top-40 crooner Robin Thicke, EDM-mashup dude Pretty Lights, chillwave posterboy Washed Out, polarizing surrealists MGMT and the Avett Brothers, the popular folk-rock band trying to convince people a banjo can still be cool. In May, headliners Vampire Weekend, the best band on the bill by a couple miles, released "Modern Vampires of the City," one of the most refined and nuanced takes on millennial disillusionment we have.
And "all over the place" is a great thing for a music festival. Attendees get a buffet of choices, sampling bits and pieces of what they want and leaving whenever interest wanes. Being won over by an act through a live performance is a rare feat these days, given the Internet's stream-this-now-now-NOW! rate of consumption, and it should be treasured as such. Sonically, there is nothing monochromatic about this year's lineup, which is a testament to I.M.P. chairman and FreeFest producer Seth Hurwitz's commitment to a musically diverse festival.
Something is missing, though, and it's a glaring omission.
Where is the rap?
Since the first FreeFest in 2009, I.M.P. has booked at least one hip-hop artist on the bill (a number that still seems low given rap's ubiquity and importance in culture, both underground and mainstream). In 2009, Wale and Public Enemy performed. The following year brought Ludacris (and would have included T.I. if it weren't for the Atlanta rapper's legal battles at the time). In 2011, Big Sean performed, and last year saw Nas on the Festival Stage (fringe rap group Das Racist canceled last-minute and broke up a few months later).
I reached out to Hurwitz and asked why there was a lack of rap this year. He responded via email: "The ones we liked had other commitments, and we didn't want to book one just to book one. There is still room, however, so we're looking out for something interesting."
Hurwitz is a pro, and I doubt he was shocked by the question. FreeFest has consistently booked hip-hop acts and it seemed strange that this year doesn't have any (yet). Many rappers that would fit this bill nicely — Kendrick Lamar, Chance the Rapper, 2 Chainz, J. Cole and Wale — are already booked for Sept. 21, so finding "something interesting" is a challenge, but not impossible. (If they book a rapper, my shot-in-the-dark guess is A$AP Rocky, who will be a few weeks removed from playing the Made in America festival in Philadelphia.)
Something else hard to ignore: The line-up skews alarmingly white. (The lone R&B representative calls Jason Seaver "dad.") Of the 20 announced acts, only four include members of color. Race should not dictate the curation of a music festival, but that number simply seems too low for a concert that casts such a wide musical net. This isn't about filling an imaginary quota; it's about interjecting some refreshing balance. FreeFest has done a better job of this in previous years (Alabama Shakes, Santigold, M.I.A., Cee Lo Green, Trombone Shorty), and it'd be a step backward to stop now.
If FreeFest addresses its lack of color, it should start with rap, which continues to influence music and pop culture in countless ways (fashion, business, sports, politics to name some). In 2013, it seems unfathomable to have a genre-spanning festival without a single rap artist on the bill. During a recent podcast, New York Times pop music critic Jon Caramanica recapped last month's three-day Pitchfork Music Festival. Caramanica argues that the final day was clearly the best and liveliest because of the hip-hop presence (something missing on Days 1 and 2) of acts such as Lil B and Killer Mike.
"I have not seen a crowd that amped in a while," Caramanica said. "This was mind-expanding. ... The kids were going ape, ape, ape. They were losing it."
Lil B is a hip-hop outlier and probably would not work with a FreeFest crowd like he did at Pitchfork. But that visceral release -- seen so clearly in this video of Lil B performing "Like a Martian" -- that comes with hip-hop's booming backdrops and its (at-times) beautiful braggadocio can energize a large, sweaty crowd in ways Vampire Weekend and the Avett Brothers cannot. We could argue other genres should be represented as well (I'm all for the excellent storyteller Kacey Musgraves filling the country void, for example), but rap seems like the most urgent place to start.