After 471 days without much live music because of COVID-19, Milwaukee finally hosted a big concert with the We Outside hip-hop show at Wisconsin State Fair Park Saturday night.
There was one setback: Co-headliner Yung Bleu didn’t make it.
In a since-deleted Instagram post, the rapper apologized to Milwaukee fans, saying he had a listening party Friday night and missed his two flights to make it to the show.
You’d think this would have doomed We Outside. But honestly, the 600 or so fans at Saturday’s show didn’t seem to miss him.
While the crowd was thrilled to be at the unofficial kickoff for the imminent return of concerts in Milwaukee, We Outside arguably served an even greater purpose — it provided an unprecedented live platform for Milwaukee street rap.
And it was led by Milwaukee’s greatest shot yet at hip-hop superstardom: Milwaukee-born, Atlanta-based rapper Lakeyah.
Less than a year after signing with Quality Control — the game-changing Atlanta label behind Migos and Lil Baby — Lakeyah has racked up 28 million YouTube views for her music videos, scored features from Gucci Mane, City Girls and Yung Bleu, and was just named to XXL magazine’s Freshman Class, the top annual trend-spotter for rising rappers.
And at her first homecoming show since becoming the first Milwaukee rapper to receive that honor, Lakeyah lived up to the hype.
Even without much live show practice because of the pandemic, Lakeyah’s charisma was effortless Saturday as she glided through standout tracks from her first two Quality Control mixtapes, “Time’s Up” and “In Due Time.” She frequently filmed videos and took selfies on fans’ smartphones as she confidently dropped her verses.
But the real key to Lakeyah’s appeal Saturday was the way she made her fans, many of them women, feel like they were shining along with her.
“I’m damn near perfect,” the crowd proudly chanted along at one point, which doubles as the theme for many of Lakeyah’s empowering songs, albeit often expressed in much raunchier terms.
Lakeyah convincingly cast herself as a beacon for her hometown Saturday, vowing she would “bring the Midwest to the industry” to rapturous applause. And she shared the spotlight with five different women brought onto the stage from the crowd to happily twerk through her track “Young and Ratchet.”
The only drawback was how short Lakeyah’s headlining set was — just a half-hour, which included an unnecessary second performance of her debut Quality Control single “BigFlexHer.”
The crowd didn’t seem to mind the repetition, although it’s a shame Lakeyah wasn’t able to show off her more vulnerable side via one of her R&B tracks, like “Windows” or “Too Much.”
But for anyone who wished there was more of Lakeyah, they won’t have to wait long to see her again in Milwaukee. She’ll be at a special event at Walker’s Lounge July 3.
Platform for Milwaukee street rappers
Beyond Lakeyah, We Outside’s lineup was rounded out by some of Milwaukee’s most popular and prolific street rappers who generate hundreds of thousands, even millions, of views on YouTube for their music videos — but were never booked for big Milwaukee shows, even before the pandemic.
Gwapo Chapo instantly seized the crowd’s attention Saturday, coming on stage with at least 20 people and dropping the first rap along of the night with “All Racks.” The energy at We Outside took another leap when the general-admission crowd was able to access the barricaded VIP section for the end of Chicken P’s set.
But the highlight of the undercard was street-rap trendsetter Solowke. Like Lakeyah, this was a homecoming for Solowke, for different reasons, following his 26-month prison sentence for possession of marijuana and a handgun, fleeing police and bail-jumping.
Solowke was so giddy coming on stage to his thrilling, tongue-twisting comeback single “Outta Sight Outta Mind,” he repeatedly missed some of his verses. But it didn’t matter. Solowke was just so infectiously happy, smiling and dancing and spinning around, he exemplified how exciting it was that, after 471 difficult days without concerts in Milwaukee, a night like We Outside was even possible.
- It would have been borderline cruel if the first big Milwaukee concert since March 2020 was rained out, and that seemed likely Saturday morning. But aside from some brief, ominous clouds, it was a blissful, rain-and-lightning-free evening.
- For anyone eager to see live music again but hesitant to be around a big crowd, We Outside would have been a good show for returning to the experience. There was plenty of space in the Wisconsin State Fair Park lot where the show took place, so anyone could have stayed far back from people and still seen and heard the show clearly. That said, most of the fans there were eager to crowd together and get as close to the stage as possible by the time Lakeyah showed up.
- In a Journal Sentinel interview, We Outside’s host and promoter Djay Mando suggested segregation may be a reason why some Milwaukee street rappers haven’t been able to line up big shows, and that venue operators may also be hesitant to book them given the drug and gun content in their songs and videos. But there were no issues at all at We Outside, which followed the same standard safety protocols you’d see at any concert. “We did this (expletive) the right way,” Mando said. “What they say isn’t true. We ain’t dangerous, we’re just having fun.”
- With Yung Bleu off the bill, Mando had to command the stage for longer amounts of time than he probably planned, but he was an affable presence, and catered to his crowd, not just with recent hits from hip-hop A-listers like Megan Thee Stallion and DaBaby, but also by dropping Milwaukee songs like one-time local hit “Big Money” by Munch Lauren.
- There were other Milwaukee artists on the We Outside bill. Veteran rapper B. Justice performed “Free Flow,” a song he made with Milwaukee native and “The Chi” star Jacob Latimore. Troy Tyler did a cover of Ginuwine’s “Pony” that might rival the actual artist’s rendition in August, when he opens for Boyz II Men at the Wisconsin State Fair. And Corey Pieper, who at one point merged pop with musical stylings from his Hawaiian heritage, proved with newer material he could fit in with current rap trends — although a hip-hop and country hybrid, “All Day Long,” may have been a bit too outside the box for this crowd.
- For anyone at We Outside disappointed Yung Bleu didn’t show up: He’s headlining Summerfest’s U.S. Cellular Connection Stage Sept. 4 — assuming he makes his flight.
Piet also talks concerts, local music and more on “TAP’d In” with Evan Rytlewski. Hear it at 8 a.m. Thursdays on WYMS-FM (88.9), or wherever you get your podcasts.