In the last decade, hip-hop has become a larger part of Super Bowl halftime performances. But never has it been front and center. That changed this past Sunday (February 13) when the genre headlined, for the first time ever, a Super Bowl halftime performance.
Led by Dr. Dre, the show was a celebration of his own legacy (and his hand in the legacies of others) and California rap both past and present, a fitting tribute to Super Bowl LVI taking place at Inglewood, CA’s SoFi Stadium.
Hip-hop headlining the Super Bowl has been a long time coming. Colin Kaepernick’s knee protest shined a light on the NFL’s diversity and social justice issues; to help address that, the league ended up partnering with JAY-Z’s Roc Nation in 2019. The deal allowed the entertainment company to help “advise on selecting artists for major NFL performances like the Super Bowl,” as well as play a role in the NFL and the Players Coalition’s “Inspire Change” initiative. The initiative was made to focus on “education and economic advancement; police and community relations; and criminal justice reform.”
As someone who once supported Kaepernick, JAY-Z’s NFL partnership was seen as a betrayal, and the rapper only made it worse when he said, “I think we’ve moved past kneeling. I think it’s time for action,” during a news conference with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell shortly after the partnership was announced. Supporters argued that Jay was playing the long game to incite necessary change both in and out of the NFL, but the change that is most visible is Roc Nation injecting pop and hip-hop into Super Bowl halftime performances.
Which brings us to this past Sunday. Hip-hop’s headlining performance was good; beginning with Dre’s “The Next Episode” and ending with “Still D.R.E.,” the show also featured Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, Mary J. Blige and 50 Cent, with each artist performing some of their most popular songs — including ones that Dre himself produced. (Anderson .Paak also made an appearance, performing drums for a live rendition of Em’s “Lose Yourself.”) Snoop deserves to be seen as a performing standard along vets like Jadakiss; Lamar is easily still contemporary rap’s best rapper and performer; Blige still has one of the most dynamic and powerful voices in music; Anderson .Paak should drum for rappers more often; and Dre can play his way around a piano (if only for the hook of “Still D.R.E.”).
The balance of musicality and precision throughout the show was a highlight but what stood out even more was the omissions — and allowances — of actions that could’ve been perceived as forms of protest. Hip-hop was the primary genre that advocated for Kaepernick kneeling in protest against police brutality. So it was interesting to see what was and wasn’t allowed during this performance.
There was the notable self-censoring of Lamar’s “and we hate popo” line from “Alright,” but there was also Dre’s very audible “Still not lovin’ police” from “Still D.R.E.,” and Em taking a knee long after the end of his “Lose Yourself” performance, the latter of which was the most overt form of protest during the set.
Before the game took place, it had been reported that the Detroit rapper wanted to take a knee during his performance but the league said no. However, NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy said the NFL was aware that Em was going to, telling Billboard: “There was an erroneous report this afternoon. We watched all elements of the show during multiple rehearsals this week and were aware that Eminem was going to do that. A player or coach could have taken a knee and there would have been no issue so there was no reason to tell an artist she or he could not do so.”
Overall, the halftime performance was a success and showed the possibilities of what a full hip-hop halftime show — from beginning to end — could be, while also protesting where it could.
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