Listen Out isn’t what it used to be – and that’s cool. The festival originated six years ago as a boutique event centred on “intelligent” dance music. But, in 2018, it’s all about the new wave of hip-hop and R&B – and the fest is H.U.G.E. With the exception of Skrillex and Snakehips, DJs are largely relegated to smaller platforms. Extraordinarily, Listen Out – which unofficially starts party season – sells out with no media campaign.
At the Melbourne edition of Listen Out – with three curated stages, surrounded by pavilions and palms above the St Kilda foreshore at Catani Gardens – even the local star Kira Puru was scheduled at 1pm. It really was an all-day affair. And, amid much discussion about diverse festival line-ups, Listen Out got it right. The electro troupe Haiku Hands brought the carnival early on the main Atari Stage with tribal bops such as ‘Not About You’. Imagine if MIA, Santigold and Robyn were members of Spice Girls.
Over at the 909 Stage, Col3trane – a rising alt-R&B idol from London with an Egyptian and American background – made his Australian premiere. A cross between Craig David, Drake and Bryson Tiller, he revealed a cheerful demeanour to a small yet appreciative audience. Col3trane wound down with his airy beat-switching paean ‘Penelope’ from 2017’s Tsarina mixtape.
Pennsylvania rapper Lil Skies was a last-minute no-show (sad face!), cancelling the entirety of his Listen Out run with zero explanation. Instead, Sydney’s charismatic Manu Crooks stepped up, with his DJ, Ziggy. The rapper/singer – who’s ensured that pale double-denim is #TheLook for summer – gave a dynamic performance, at once commanding and rocking the crowd with bangers like ‘Ridin” through to his recent ‘Fuego’ (featuring Anfa Rose). He actually threw a little block party by ad-libbing over Drake’s ‘God’s Plan’.
Among the most buzzed homegrown acts was imbi the girl – the Sydney hip-hop soul artist lauded by Billboard. Oddly, their set on the intimate Third Base stage was programmed at the same time as Noname on the main. Joined by a DJ, imbi (in red coat) opened with ‘Angel Face’, one of the new songs from this month’s For Me EP. They also revisited the cult singles ‘VIP’ (“it’s like a little sexy ode to yourself”) and ‘Swell’. Sublime.
At the Atari Stage, the acclaimed Noname and her slick band (her drummer works it!) endured sound issues. The Chicago poet, MC and singer – who lately presented her debut album, Room 25 – has developed a sophisticated freeform jazz-hop and neo-soul, redolent of Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and Ursula Rucker (she calls it “lullaby rap music”). Noname impressed with her wordplay and wry humour – attempting to teach the audience “rhythm”.
Touring Australia for the first time, Brockhampton pulled a massive crowd – their slot a pop concert within a festival. In fact, there is something subversive about the Texan collective, who mythically formed on a Kanye West fan forum. Brockhampton – who freely declare themselves “the greatest boy band in the motherfuckin’ world” – could be a cloud rap B2K. For them, being a boyband is less about representing any guilty pop pleasure than making a meta statement – and they emit both joy and a modish spiritual enervation. Frontman Kevin Abstract plaintively called out, “Are y’all alive out there?” Brockhampton have just released their major label debut, iridescence – laid down at London’s Abbey Road Studios. In a coup for Aussies, the group recreated fresh songs like the drum ‘n’ bass (!) epic ‘Weight’ as well as old faves like their One Direction-referencing ‘Boogie’. Undoubtedly, Brockhampton have quiet musical – and cultural – ambition.
The UK grime MC/producer Skepta – in a fluoro hoodie – kept the energy flowing with his posse. The North Londoner repped 2016’s Mercury Prize-winning album Konnichiwa with songs like ‘Lyrics’. Of course, his biggest anthem was ‘Shutdown’.
If Listen Out booked a pivotal headliner in 2018, it was A$AP Rocky – last Down Under in 2016. This year, the Harlem rapper unveiled an experimental, post-trap third album, TESTING. Rocky, who epitomises hip-hop’s millennial individualism, staged a spectacle with pyrotechnics, smoke machines, hallucinogenic visuals, and a band. He launched compellingly with ‘Distorted Records’, TESTING‘s intro. Next, came the album’s big single, ‘A$AP Forever’, sampling Moby’s ‘Porcelain’. Another new song that blew? ‘Praise The Lord (Da Shine)’ with Skepta. Alas, Rocky lost momentum midway with weirdly long lulls between songs. And he led an extended chant to open the mosh pit. Things picked up again when Rocky loosely performed his Rod Stewart-inspired ‘Everyday’, which punters latched onto. He aptly closed with his Skrillex collab ‘Wild For The Night’. Rocky might study that infamous rager Travis Scott – who, while conceiving art-rap albums, still brings the party live.
Rocky was followed by, yes, his unlikely cohort, Skrillex – who, as the onetime figurehead for brostep, seemed an anomalous addition to Listen Out in 2018. The Californian DJ is struggling to reinvent himself in the post-EDM epoch – and those big breakdowns sounded… retro. Ironically the day’s revelatory DJ was Sydney’s Made In Paris – the best emerging techno (or tech-house) practitioner on the scene – back at Third Base. Her set was as musically textured as any by Henry Saiz, with the driving depth of the legendary Francois K in Detroit homage mode. Never sleep.