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Dr. Dre delivered the Super Bowl halftime show rap music deserves

Today’s most popular idiom of American music was long overdue for this kind of celebration

Dr. Dre, Mary J. Blige and Snoop Dogg perform during the Super Bowl halftime show in Inglewood, Calif. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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Rarely are corporo-promo tweets as prophetic as the one Pepsi’s social media team flicked into the digital void last week hyping its Super Bowl halftime show, but take a look: “History will be written.”

Really? Well, wow, yeah, okay, really. Because if you caught the interstitial music at Sunday night’s big game, you witnessed rap icon Dr. Dre orchestrating a hip-hop tour de force on the 50-yard line of SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., calling on his greatest collaborators — Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar and 50 Cent — to finally let rap music bask in the pop culture spotlight it has so long deserved.

And together, their righteous music created all kinds of tacit friction with the accusations of racism currently being leveled at today’s NFL, from the league’s silencing of quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s public stand against racist policing to coach Brian Flores’s recent lawsuit against the league for its allegedly discriminatory hiring practices. Not so tacit: Dre’s foregrounding of rap music as a truth-to-power speaking mechanism and a rebuke of the American police violence that continues to disproportionately end so many Black lives across this broken country of ours.

“Still not loving police,” Dre rapped during the regal thrum of “Still D.R.E.,” a line that the NFL most certainly would have preferred he nip from the show. But nope. The words floated out of his mouth cooler than Freon and everybody danced. The NFL booked Dr. Dre and Dr. Dre showed up.

And while that certainly felt like history being written, it’s good to remind ourselves each year that this halftime show is always more significant than we think, regardless of who’s onstage. It’s the most widely experienced musical performance in the United States each year (verging on or passing 100 million viewers), so it feels wrong that, until now, rappers have only been invited to provide musical garnish at previous halftime gigs.

“We’re going to open more doors for hip-hop artists in the future and making sure that the NFL understands that this is what it should have been a long time ago,” Dre told reporters at a news conference last week. “It’s crazy that it took all of this time for us to be recognized. I think we’re going to do a fantastic job. We’re going to do it so big that they can’t deny us anymore in the future.”

So big songs were accompanied by big statements, particularly after a surging performance of “Lose Yourself,” when Eminem crouched down on one knee in solidarity with Kaepernick. Whether his gesture ends up going down in the history books as an act of allyship or as a White privilege flex, he at least made it clear where he stands on the issue.

Lamar supplied the night’s most riveting moments, making sartorial nods to “Rhythm Nation”-era Janet Jackson while releasing syllables with flickering speed during “Alright.” But for some reason, he seemed to self-censor while rapping the line, “We hate po-po/Wanna kill us dead in the street for sure.” It’s impossible to know how much behind-the-scenes negotiation went on between the artists and the league here. Maybe hating the police was deemed off-limits, but not loving them was okay?

Meantime, Blige and Snoop played to opposite sides of the emotional spectrum, with Blige exuding gravitas and proffering catharsis while Snoop played the delighted hype-man during Dre’s “The Next Episode,” “Still D.R.E.” and “California Love” — era-defining songs that should remind us how, as maestro and protege, these two have filled the popular imagination with the most vivid and lasting aural images of California since the Beach Boys.

Now let’s all try to imagine a world where what happened on Sunday night is normal.

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