MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Rolling Loud is not Coachella. The air is five times thicker and 10 times heavier. It’s filled with designer fragrances, and puffs of cheap weed, and the conjoined ghosts of Woodstock and Altamont, and a Miami-Dade County police helicopter tracing halos over the festival grounds. Mostly, it’s filled with the sound of rappers rapping against oblivion — nearly 200 in total, each cramming the airspace with songs of themselves, multitudes flaunting multitudes. Somehow, there’s still something left to breathe.
It touts itself as “the largest hip-hop festival in the world,” but Rolling Loud is also the starriest, booking the best rappers from across the country, and the best attended, with tens of thousands of tickets to this year’s party having vanished in all of six minutes. So for three days and nights, America’s youth celebrated Rolling Loud’s fifth anniversary on the grounds of Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, basking in our century’s truest music — an art form that currently radiates optimism and dread in equal measure. It all felt about as era-defining as it gets. Today’s rap music isn’t about changing the world. It’s about surviving it.
Or, considering the location, maybe this was just that end-times soiree that Prince prophesied in “1999.” Because while Rolling Loud might be the biggest rap festival on this planet, this planet might be doomed. Here’s a prognostication published last year in the New Yorker: “As the average global temperature increases, sea level is projected to rise more than one foot by 2045, which would put a fifth of Miami underwater at high tide.” Other projections find Miami Beach almost entirely submerged by the year 2100.
Accordingly, so much of the rap music blasting out of these area codes in recent years can be heard as a subconscious response to Miami’s fragility — the sound of young people doing everything in their power to shout down an extinction event. So if it didn’t hurt your ears, it might have hurt your heart to hear Miami’s Lil Pump screaming himself numb at Rolling Loud on Sunday night during “D Rose,” a dyspeptic ode to an NBA point guard, during which the 18-year-old rapper ultimately bludgeoned the refrain into mush. Instead of “D. Rose, D. Rose, D. Rose,” it sounded like “zeros, zeros, zeros” — until it felt like nothing at all.
You might have expected a similar sensation when Chicago’s Chief Keef barged into “I Don’t Like,” his generational anthem for the inured, but when thousands of voices instantly started shouting along, it was nothing short of exultant. Those moments kept adding up. Across roughly 35 hours of amplified sound, the artists assembled at Rolling Loud sent an impossible profusion of words flying through the air, and watching so many of them appear on so many lips was straight-up extraordinary — from Keef’s “I Don’t Like” to Young Thug’s “Lifestyle” to Tee Grizzley’s “First Day Out” to Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” to Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” to Megan Thee Stallion’s “Big Ole Freak” to a hundred other songs that everyone on the premises seemed to know, top to bottom, back to front. Rap music synchronizes. Like prayer.
Around 10:30 p.m. Friday, when Miami maestro Rick Ross was saying his little prayers, something horrible happened. Hundreds of people came sprinting across the festival grounds in strange patterns and formless routes. Not toward, but away from — the kind of running that instantly makes your stomach drop out of your body. A few teenagers finally slowed down, wiping away their tears and saying that they had been running from gunshots. And then, a wave a relief that hardly felt like one: No shots had been fired. False alarm. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is about 35 miles north of Miami Gardens, but in that instant, it felt right there.
Ninety minutes later, as traffic funneled out into the dark Florida night, a street preacher posted up outside the Dunkin’ Donuts at NW 199th Street and 27th Avenue, scolding passersby through his megaphone. He had raised a cardboard sign that read “HELL IS REAL.” But everybody here already knew that.
Two nights later, more running — only this time, the ecstatic kind. A hairy gentleman in a cowboy hat named Billy Ray Cyrus had suddenly appeared on the festival’s main stage to help croon Lil Nas X’s freak megahit, “Old Town Road” — the No. 1 song in the country. Seemingly aware of a great novelty hit’s high perishability, scores of teens went darting toward the stage with their camera phones filming giddy chase scenes, rushing to capture a happiness that won’t last forever.
But outside the festival gates, news of that surprise duet — or any news about any music, really — was drowned out by headlines that reinforced the worst stereotypes about rappers and rap music. Kodak Black was a no-show, reportedly arrested on weapons charges while en route to the festival Saturday, while Lil Wayne bailed on his headlining set that same night, objecting to be checked by festival security. Then Sunday, shortly after reportedly being shot at in a road rage incident, 19-year-old YoungBoy Never Broke Again was onstage, chanting a paranoiac refrain: “I ain’t going outside today.” Fans roared along, shaking the sodden air, drowning out any sound from the police helicopter circling overhead.
Nearly every moment of Rolling Loud felt smothered with noise, but to many, it never felt noisy enough. “Make some noise!” shouted Sheck Wes. “Make some noise!” shouted Trippie Redd. “Make some noise!” shouted YBS Skola. “Make some noise!” shouted Yung Baby Tate. “Please make some noise!” shouted Blueface. Across the weekend, this incessant scrap of reflexive stage banter slowly began to feel like a sacred mantra — an invitation to declare your existence by contributing to the indomitable hum of the world.
But if your ears caught the most nuanced voices at Rolling Loud, you heard them surfacing their humanity with greater delicacy, reminding everyone how a rapper’s words can express so much more than their meanings — like when Atlanta’s Lil Baby chirped like new sneakers during “Drip Too Hard,” or when Detroit’s Sada Baby rhymed in serpentine growls during “Bloxk Party,” or when Charlotte’s DaBaby snapped his boasts together like so many Lego bricks during “Suge.” Clearly, these three babes have put some thought into their stage names. What’s more inventive than baby talk?
Probably whatever SpaceGhostPurrp was doing Saturday night. Crackling with otherworldly intensity, the Miami-born cult rapper’s songs captured the mood of the festival — only inside-out, as if the 28-year-old had figured out how to transpose a photo negative of the entire weekend into sound. If you couldn’t hear it, you needed to try harder. “Don’t listen to what I’m saying!” he told the crowd. “[Forget] what I’m talking about! Just hear the beat!”
Then he stopped rapping altogether. For his remaining moments onstage, he was a fellow listener, a fellow witness, a citizen of South Florida’s future flood zones, just trying to live long enough to see what happens next.