Blurry Vision Fest provides site for sore eyes, eager ears

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Isabella Schreiber/Staff

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The latest entry to the increasingly crowded Bay Area music festival scene, Blurry Vision Fest made a splash in its debut this weekend at the Middle Harbor Shoreline Park in Oakland. Funded by cash from Goldenvoice the creators of Coachella the new festival stood out from its big brother through a greater emphasis on contemporary R&B and hip-hop. It’s a niche that many are trying to capitalize on, because of hip-hop usurping EDM as the soundtrack of America’s youth.

Though it was the inaugural Blurry Vision, the festival had some impressive gets Migos and SZA, as headliners, couldn’t have been cheap nor easy to book. But a whiff of amateurishness still remained in the lack of a second stage and the half-hearted mulching of the venue, which led to suffocating and eye-stinging clouds of dust as the wind picked up. Despite the lack of Jumbotrons, the festival could at least boast a fantastic audio system, one that allowed those who couldn’t see from the back of the crowd to at least hear the performers just as well as those in the front row.

The lineup presented a real commitment to the outré and left-field. Acts such as queer rap collective BROCKHAMPTON; the walking personification of Tumblr, Clairo; the Bay Area’s No. 1 purveyor of feel-good vibes, Kamaiyah, and others aren’t exactly the faces of hip-hop festivals, yet they held prominent spots on the roster nonetheless. But only time will tell if this model proves sustainable.

Adesh Thapliyal

SZA

Seeing SZA live feels a bit like getting to see a pop-up book version of Ctrl. Of course, all the essential elements of the album, from SZA’s pitch-perfect vocals to the lush vulnerability of her lyrics, are still there, but there are even more dimensions to explore, each of which only enhances the album rather than detracts from it.

Take the way she moved onstage — despite spending her hourlong set jumping, skipping and twirling across the stage, her voluminous hair bouncing elegantly all the while, SZA never went off pitch. Her voice moved from the luminous warmth of her studio recordings to perfectly placed screams that underscored the power of her voice. Her body and her voice seemed to understand each other perfectly, never allowing one to eclipse the work of the other.

The show’s most captivating moments came when SZA turned to the crowd with song-explaining banter that was as charming as it was informative.

“This song is about this time I went to this shitty-ass party for no reason. To see a boy,” she said, giving the backstory to “Drew Barrymore.” “I brought weed and he brought a girl and he played me.”

The crowd booed her former flame as SZA laughed off the memory and passed on some wisdom. “I don’t leave my house, I don’t party, so don’t be doing shit you don’t want to do for anyone,” she said before launching into song as visuals of Drew Barrymore flooded the screen behind her.

During her show, murmurs erupted throughout the crowd, predicting that, at some point, Kendrick Lamar would join SZA onstage. Needless to say, it never happened — and for the best. Any distraction from the pop-up book of SZA’s creation would have been an unwelcome one.

— Sannidhi Shukla

BROCKHAMPTON

On Saturday, just hours before BROCKHAMPTON’s evening set, Ameer Vann, one of the boy band’s key rappers, tweeted out a quick, cryptic apology in response to allegations of emotional manipulation emerging from multiple women — “I am sorry to the people I’ve hurt and the fans I’ve disappointed,” his tweet read.

The other members of BROCKHAMPTON, who had all deactivated their social media accounts, meanwhile, maintained complete silence on the issue.

On the festival grounds, where a stable cell signal was harder to come by than an outfit from somewhere, anywhere other than Forever 21, fans seemed completely oblivious to Vann’s apology and the allegations that inspired it. It was an absolute bubble for BROCKHAMPTON to play its most grandiose set to date.

From a giant helicopter centerpiece adorning the stage to the orchestra that flanked both sides and reinvigorated the boy band’s most well-known tracks with emotional intensity, BROCKHAMPTON seemed to have pulled out all the stops.

Yet it’s difficult not to retroactively consider the set in the context of the allegations against Vann, the weak apology he issued and the imbalance of knowledge that existed between the performers and the audience. In this context, the band’s displays of brotherly love begin to seem quite sinister.

After the group’s performance of “SWEET,” for example, Kevin Abstract, BROCKHAMPTON’s pseudo-frontman, asked the audience, “Can we get soft for a second? Is that OK?” The crowd erupted in cheers as each of the band members met in front of the helicopter for a group hug as videos of the band’s members engaging in completely mundane activities flashed in the background.

Otherwise a sweet image of brotherhood and vulnerability, framed by the day’s events, it became a clear reminder of BROCKHAMPTON’s silence on and complicity in Vann’s actions. It’s a reminder that’s especially difficult to swallow coming from a group that’s always billed itself as an incubator for creativity, love and acceptance.

— Sannidhi Shukla

Adesh Thapliyal/Staff

Adesh Thapliyal/Staff

Clairo

Though she looked every bit true to her 19 years of age, Clairo strode on stage self-assuredly. Clad in standard millennial girl “I don’t care” wear, she sported an oversize neutral-colored sweater, which she contrasted with bright, skin-clinging tights. Clairo looked sleepy, graced with a languid stage presence of seeming apathy, a presence of the variety that once submerged Lana Del Rey in controversy after a passive “Saturday Night Live” performance.

Yet dreamy languor is Clairo’s je ne sais quoi. It’s what makes her more than just a SoundCloud bedroom artist with one viral hit, the not-like-the-other-girls anthem “Pretty Girl.” Yet her presence does not fully channel the dreaminess of Del Rey’s lounge singer persona. The awkwardness of her stage name, the tinniness of her music, the affectlessness of her persona she channels the mythic figure of the Teenage Girl, and her set’s lassitude is, if anything, a reflection of a youthful insouciance toward her newfound fame.

But enough about Clairo’s internet persona. The notorious issue plaguing internet success stories is translating e-fame into where the money is the real world. Just look at the stiff DJ sets of PC Music or Allie X’s awkward stage presence. For those who depend on the internet for their aesthetic, the real world can rip apart the digital facade that gives their music its charm.

Clairo’s set was a master class in doing this transition right. Clairo didn’t seek to replicate her music in a festival setting she aimed to translate it. In service of that, she brought out a charming backing band staffed by kids not much older than herself. The presence of a drummer and two guitarists alone is indication enough of a plan to translate her precocious dream pop aesthetic into a precocious teen rock aesthetic, essentially going from Shura to Yo La Tengo.

Clairo ran through all five of her released songs, plus one deep cut from the obscure corners of her SoundCloud discography. “If you know this, you’re a real one,” she taunted. But the perfectly awkward GarageBand 101 synths that underpin her music were replaced by luscious, full-bodied guitar licks, the baldly artificial drum kit replaced by an energetic and talented live drummer.

Above the din, Clairo softly sang into the mic as if she were singing to herself rather than to a crowd of hundreds. She barely enunciated her words, making her voice more of an instrument in the mix than the melody. The full effect was like early Tennis, summery pop rock as heard compressed through a transistor radio.

And just think this is only the beginning of her career.

Adesh Thapliyal

Adesh Thapliyal/Staff

Adesh Thapliyal/Staff

Isaiah Rashad

Rashad was dressed like a Bay Area tech bro in all black, wearing some corporate T-shirt with a nondescript logo. He gradually removed his jacket throughout the set at one point, he was bouncing and running across the stage with his arm only in one sleeve.

Rashad appeared at Blurry Vision alongside his Top Dawg Entertainment labelmate SZA and they share more in common than management. Both have a commitment to emotional realism and oversharing; both express in their lyrics an unflinching exploration of anxiety and addiction. One of the Chattanooga, Tennessee, MC’s biggest hits, “4r Da Squaw,” provides a lyrical exploration of the emotions involved in taking responsibility for his child.

The point is, Rashad’s music is not exactly festival material. If the modern music festival is a symbol for youthful, sexual, drug-fueled excess, Rashad’s music is a counterpoint to that. Since his critically acclaimed debut EP, Cilvia Demo, his music has always dwelled on the theme of growing up — of leaving his drinking and drug use behind to focus on his family and his career. His songs aren’t danceable. Instead, he muses over a tuneful but not flashy beat, quietly flinging out truth bombs while providing penetrating and honest insights into his struggles.

Rashad will turn 27 on May 16, he claimed, and the crowd good-naturedly sang “Happy Birthday to You.” In fact, good-natured defines the atmosphere surrounding his entire set. Rashad knows his music is heady, and he avoids harshing the vibe with his disarmingly charming stage presence.

Rashad constantly traversed the stage, pointing at the crowd, doing awkward little dances, cutting the beat for a freestyle actions that were guaranteed to elicit cheers and attention. He even changed the lyrics of “Rope // rosegold” from simply “I love you,” tacking on “and you, and you, and you” as he pointed to each member of the front row.

Rashad also stopped the show entirely to deliver a handful of poignant monologues. He commanded the audience to “act like siblings,” claiming that no one should be “touching a girl out here” without her permission. Given the fact that sexual assault is depressingly common at music festivals, calling out predatory behavior sets a hopeful example for their future.

Though occasionally hoarse and more than once audibly out of breath, Rashad showed a presence onstage that was raw and exciting.

Adesh Thapliyal

Adesh Thapliyal/Staff

Adesh Thapliyal/Staff

Joji

R&B singer Joji, better known as YouTube personality Filthy Frank, may never be able to outgrow his image as a crass internet comedian. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for him — if anything, it means that he already has a recognizable persona to build from. Joji’s problem, then, is that instead of Filthy Frank being the foundation upon which to build, this character becomes the foundation as well as the entire damn framework of a new persona. Joji is just Filthy Frank with the attire of a swaggerless rock star and all the charm of a deadbeat dad milking his glory days for all they’re worth.

But this somehow worked in his favor. On paper, Joji’s stage presence is nonexistent. Yet, to an audience that recognizes him as Filthy Frank, simply seeing him onstage was enough to cause a stir. Anything that came from his mouth — from his lyrics to his frequent exclamations of, “Unblock me, bitch!” — was automatically hilarious just because he was saying it. Joji doesn’t have to be a good musician nor does he have to really be funny to secure an adoring crowd. He just has to be in front of people who know who he is.

This didn’t stop him from doing everything in his power to try to chase down a laugh. At one point, when the excitement dissipated, he pulled out a bag of underwear from backstage — “It’s clean,” he assured — and began launching it into the audience. The crowd, of course, went wild.

From that moment on, Joji began launching out everything from more underwear to banana peels into the audience every time he felt his audience’s attention slipping away, with each repetition being, of course, less funny than the one that came before it. Joji knows how to make a joke; he just has no sense of when it’s time to leave one behind.

— Sannidhi Shukla

Adesh Thapliyal/Staff

Adesh Thapliyal/Staff

Majid Jordan

Majid Jordan was, quite simply, done dirty by Blurry Vision’s lineup. Falling just after an energetic set by Isaiah Rashad and just before that night’s highly anticipated sets by BROCKHAMPTON and SZA, the R&B duo would have to do something drastic if it wanted to be remembered. It, of course, failed miserably. While the set provided pleasant music to listen to while waiting, the duo had neither the charisma and stage presence nor the musical chops to be able to hold the audience’s attention when much more exciting acts had come just before and much more highly anticipated acts were just about to come.

Majid Al Maskati, the singer of the duo, offered perhaps the weakest performance of the evening. Al Maskati’s vocals deviated quite alarmingly from the backing track and were at best a reminder of the power of studio recordings and at worst completely pitiful to hear. To add insult to injury, even Al Maskati’s dance moves and command of the stage were eclipsed by producer Jordan Ullman’s energy, despite the obvious barrier that Ullman faced of having to stand in one place the entire time.

To be fair, Ullman’s production is divine. From moaning, hiccuping synths to delicately crafted glissandos, Ullman built a cool synth oasis in the dusty festival grounds, which, unfortunately, was muddied by Al Maskati’s ineptitude.

Love featured itself prominently in Majid Jordan’s set, not only in the duo’s lyrics, but also in Al Maskati’s attempts to call the audience back to attention. Multiple times throughout the set he sputtered out a halfhearted, “We love you all, Oakland,” which, like anything else Majid Jordan has ever done, was much more of a deformed nod toward style than any gesture toward substance.

— Sannidhi Shukla

Kamaiyah

Cheers accompanied Kamaiyah’s entire set, starting from the minute she entered in a tracksuit straight out of a Missy Elliott music video circa 2002, followed by four athletic background dancers. Her tracksuit featured her name not once, but twice and that’s what her set felt like: a celebration of Kamaiyah herself.

The key to Kamaiyah’s music her uniqueness, her drive, her winning effervescence can be summarized just with the title of her debut album, A Good Night in the Ghetto. The titular ghetto is a reference to her birthplace, East Oakland. This homage extends beyond discography; her set was a celebration of Oakland’s culture, characterized by hyphy music, Black excellence and queer-friendly vibes.

It was also a site of resistance. Kamaiyah prominently sported a bandana on her head, just two days after she was arrested at the airport for reportedly refusing to remove her headgear. Black female bodies are often overpoliced and heavily scrutinized, with Black women’s choices often received with disproportionate violence.

But at Blurry Vision, Kamaiyah projected strength and positivity. As her dancers performed carefree routines behind her, Kamaiyah ran through her best-known bops, everything from “I’m On” to “Out the Bottle” to “How Does It Feel.” And the crowd ate it up, joyfully singing along even to her deepest cuts. As a favor to her hyped audience, she even dropped a snippet of her unreleased collaboration with ScHoolboy Q, “Addicted to Ballin’.” The energy got so positive that the DJ even left his controls, dancing alongside Kamaiyah to the overwhelming beat.

Clearly, there are good returns when festivals program with an ear to local tastes. Regional pride is strong in hip-hop, and wising up to that might diversify festival lineups, freeing them of the same few heavy hitters. Then it’s tragic that Blurry Vision had no other Bay Area representation as prominent as Kamaiyah. While other local stars such as Kehlani, Saweetie, and SOB X RBE are gaining national audiences, there’s no reason for Oakland-set festivals to not highlight Bay Area talent. If Kamaiyah’s set is any indication, local artists can make crowds turn up just as well as headliners.

Adesh Thapliyal

Contact Sannidhi Shukla at [email protected]. Contact Adesh Thapliyal at [email protected].

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