In a Sahara tent known for sensory overload and cut-loose fun, the Long Beach rapper Vince Staples delivered a bracing jolt of the reality behind Coachella's traditional escapism.
"See this weight is on my shoulders, pray Jehovah lift me up / And my pain is never over, pills and potions fix me up," he rapped on "Lift Me Up," one of the best songs from his breakthrough LP "Summertime '06."
The kids understood the pills and potions part, but there was a lot of real pain underneath those lyrics that set the tone of the day so far: a sense that something is wrong in the world. And by naming it (or building giant sculptures about it) we can try to fix it.
That sentiment started early Saturday when Run the Jewels played a congenial introduction video from Bernie Sanders. It was the first potential-president cameo at the festival, and RTJ's Killer Mike is one of Sanders' most outspoken advocates. RTJ's set was rowdy and upbeat, with a buddy-comedy verve (El-P apologized for wearing shorts onstage and making the crowd stare at his legs) and guest turns from Nas and a spectacularly bawdy Gangsta Boo.
But as topics like police brutality and failed institutions crept in, RTJ's political radicalism turned from endearing to pointed. The party was in full swing, but there was work to be done.
Elsewhere, the same sense popped up in SZA's moody but vigorous R&B. She's the only woman signed to Top Dawg Entertainment (home to Kendrick Lamar and Schoolboy Q), and her songs move at a narcotic crawl but are filled to overflowing with tough emotion. She closed with "Babylon," one of her best and darkest singles, which she said she wrote as a bit of revenge track against her family and all the boring jobs she had while drifiting through her post-college years. The sound went from jazzy and intimate to bass-bombed and overwhelming. With any luck, she'll finally achieve the same renown as her labelmates soon.
Even Halsey and the Damned, about as diametrically opposed as two acts here can be, tapped into their own veins of dissatisfaction. The Damned's no-future UK punk thrash sounded gritty and immediate; Halsey's electro-pop was much bigger but still rooted in, as she described it, the feelings of a "19-year-girl from New Jersey with no clue." Her hit single "New Americana" is a cumbersome, awkward song, but she's got real vocal talent and a genuine eye on the tides of millennial misgivings.
But Staples captured the unsettled mood best, even as he ribbed the audience for getting too stoned to really hear him out. "Hang N' Bang" and "Smoke and Retribution" (his collaboration with the Aussie downtempo producer Flume) documented a life at the margins of L.A., and the taxing ways we escape it.
Staples has a vicious wit and an even more unsparing sense of indignity, and it's a rare rapper who can make a crowd laugh and dance, and then turn it inside-out against them.
Brown writes for the California News Group, publisher of The San Diego Union-Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.