Highlights from the True Laurels showcase of Baltimore-based rappers at the Trillectro music festival. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun video)
After hours of mostly aggressive bravado, with varying degrees of effectiveness, the freshest breath of air — more like a gust — hit the Merriweather Post Pavilion main stage on Saturday night in the form of SZA, the R&B singer selected to headline the Trillectro festival in Columbia.
Mostly performing songs from “Ctrl,” the Grammy-nominated singer displayed the raw emotions and vulnerability that made the 2017 album so instantly memorable. Her lyrics reveal insecurities and moments of resiliency, both through loving others and having to stare long in the mirror. In other words, she sings tenderly, unflinchingly about the human experience.
“I get so lonely I forget what I’m worth / We get so lonely, we pretend that this works,” SZA sang on “Drew Barrymore,” as vintage video clips of the actress played on the video screen behind her.
Despite such occasional stark observations, her confidence and vocal ability made it obvious why she’s now a festival headliner. Three years ago, she was on this same stage much earlier in the day, largely as an unknown artist trying to win over some Sweetlife Festival attendees. Albums as good as “Ctrl” tend to change situations rapidly.
If other performers’ sets felt straightforward and perfunctory, SZA, who performed with a three-piece band, approached her’s like a true festival headliner, bringing out surprise guests to keep the audience on its toes.
First came Goldlink, the D.C. rapper whose “Crew” hasn’t lost an ounce of joy since its 2016 release, especially in Maryland. D.C. torchbearer Wale performed his collaboration with SZA, “The Need to Know,” before raising the temperature with “No Hands.” Finally, her Top Dawg Entertainment labelmate Jay Rock showed up to perform “Win.” SZA watched and danced nearby, smiling with pride having created unique moments — increasingly rare feats in the festival ecosystem.
But during captivating renditions of her best songs, such as “The Weekend” and “Love Galore,” SZA made it plain she was the night’s star.
The majority of the crowd missed a great opportunity to see some of Baltimore’s finest rappers on the smaller 9:32 Stage. Those in attendance of the set, curated by True Laurels, saw artists with local hits that deserve to be bigger: From Lor Choc (“Score”) and Abdu Ali (“Did Dat”) to Butch Dawson (“Feel Nobody”) and Tate Kobang (“North North”). Most eye-opening was the expressive Shordie Shordie, one half of the group Peso Da Mafia, whose raspy sing-song flow elevated his solo tracks to radio-ready bangers. He could be next.
Want to get a crowd of young people to lose their minds immediately? Play Sheck Wes’ rumbling hit, “Mo Bamba,” and get out of the way. The Hill Stage crowd was beyond packed, with security repeatedly instructing the entire audience to take steps back before they allowed Sheck Wes onstage. When the beat finally dropped, the crowd lost its collective mind, providing the most hyped-up moment of the day.
Playboi Carti’s set was fantastic, with the “Die Lit” rapper spending much of his time headbanging and posing for the crowd. The rapping? Well, that was more of an afterthought, and rightfully so. Far from a traditionalist, Carti has turned his choppy non-sequiturs and repetitive ad-libs into rap art, where songs feel like vital bursts of energy while saying little. “Shoota,” a bouncy collaboration with Lil Uzi Vert, was another clear highlight of the day.
The night’s biggest electronic dance music representatives were Carnage, the Frederick-raised rap-EDM-hybrid producer, and RL Grime, the Los Angeles trap producer. Most impressive about the latter was the chaotic light show, while Carnage — who said he wanted more respect from local radio stations as a Maryland-raised artist — knew the power of reminding listeners of forgotten hits from the recent past. So yes, 50 Cent’s “21 Questions” still rings off.
One of the day’s biggest names took the stage just after 5 p.m. Yet the Atlanta rapper 2 Chainz attacked the stage with the star power and charisma of a night-ending performance. Stacking hits on hits, like “Proud” and “All Me,” he performed with precision, landing each bar with emphasis for maximum (comedic and dramatic) effects. Most apparent was his easy-going Southern charm, making in-between-song banter seem natural. It’s no surprise he hosts a cable TV show.