SXSW 2018: Tinashe flourishes and Smokepurpp flops at Pandora showcase

There are two ways to look at Lil Xan’s last-minute cancellation of his Wednesday night Pandora House headlining set (and the rest of his SXSW shows) due to an illness. On one hand, Xan’s a flashy, young up-and-comer with a few genuinely hot singles, and it would’ve been nice to see how he handled such a high-production environment (and if he could earn back the good graces of hip-hop purists after he blasphemed the name of Tupac last week). On the other hand, his absence cut the showcase by an hour, which, after the wave of talentless MCs that closed out the night, proved the greatest gift of all.

Kelela preforms at The Gatsby during SXSW, Wednesday, March 14, 2018. (Stephen Spillman / for American-Statesman)

Even without the Xan Man rounding out the bill, the Pandora showcase was still a scheduling disaster, as sound checks ran long and artists took the stage late. Under better circumstances, Atlanta’s YFN Lucci might have impressed with slick, pop-friendly tracks like “Everyday We Lit” and “Key to the Streets.” Instead, he performed for approximately 13 minutes and left the stage seemingly mid-song, much to the audience’s confusion.

Still, even Lucci’s set sounded like high art compared to Louisiana teen JayDaYoungan. It’s difficult to comment on his actual artistry or lyricism, because he can’t rap. No, literally. He proved physically incapable of stringing actual words together into any sort of tangible rhyme scheme or melody to accompany his bargain-bin trap songs. Half the time he didn’t bother trying, lazily signaling to the audience to sing and letting his backing tracks do the work. It was better that way.

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After the scheduling shake-up, Wednesday’s headlining slot went to Smokepurpp, a 20-year-old SoundCloud rapper from Miami who sounds like every other 20-year-old SoundCloud rapper from Miami. His beats are distorted and bone-rattling, and his lyrics are mostly unprintable, though they usually involve promiscuous women, illicit substances and expensive vehicles — sometimes two or three at a time! That was best heard on his breakout hit “Audi,” which commanded a respectable mosh pit among the sparse 1 a.m. crowd.

To his credit, Smokepurpp seemed at least mildly engaged throughout his performance and at times even rapped on beat. But forgive me if I’m hesitant to celebrate an artist with millions of Spotify streams, headlining one of the biggest brand showcases at one of the biggest festivals in the world, for doing the bare minimum.

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That’s not to say the whole showcase was a bust. Kelela captivated the audience with her gloomy, alternative R&B, switching between a low, sensuous croon and breathy falsetto atop cavernous, frigid beats. Tinashe dominated the stage immediately afterward, winning several audible gasps for the sheer athleticism — and sensuality — of her performance. Her sultry pop-R&B bangers might not win any awards for originality, and even she sounded a little embarrassed by her canned stage banter, but it was hard to deny her massive hooks and masterful choreography, which she and four backup dancers delivered without breaking a sweat.

These back-to-back R&B powerhouses were the obvious highlights of Wednesday’s Pandora showcase, and the audience knew it, as the at-capacity venue immediately cleared out once Tinashe left the stage. Unless those people read this review, they may never know what they missed in the showcase’s final two hours. Lucky them.