On Sunday, we saw the second-best Super Bowl halftime show of all time — and the first to celebrate hip-hop as the nation’s dominant cultural force. Only this grudging recognition comes a couple of decades too late.
But I digress. This year’s show was musically almost as good and culturally even more important. It finally welcomed hip-hop into the American mainstream and its icons into the entertainment establishment, managing to do so before any of them became eligible for Medicare.
Dr. Dre, who headlined the show, is 56. Mary J. Blige is 51. Snoop Dogg is 50. Eminem is 49. Dre’s protege 50 Cent is 46. Of the luminaries who performed, only 34-year-old Kendrick Lamar and 36-year-old Anderson .Paak (who was indeed there, though unacknowledged, pounding away at the drum kit) could plausibly claim to not yet be middle-aged.
Perhaps they had to grow older — and yes, in some cases, put on a few pounds — before they could be deemed safe to perform in that privileged setting. The National Football League is the country’s biggest, most popular, most lucrative sports franchise. Its championship game is one of the few occasions when our fractured and fractious nation still comes together for a shared experience. So the Super Bowl halftime show can never be too edgy or challenging, can never make a significant portion of the audience uncomfortable. It has to reflect a kind of least-common-denominator consensus not just about what is entertaining but also about what is American.
So the choice is usually a pop megastar, such as Beyoncé (2013) or Lady Gaga (2017); or a legendary rock group, a la the Rolling Stones (2006) or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (2009).
But by 1988, when the Super Bowl halftime show involved the Rockettes, Chubby Checker, two marching bands and 88 grand pianos in an unironic extravaganza of kitsch, Dr. Dre was already a member of the Los Angeles rap collective NWA and was about to release the group’s seminal first studio album, “Straight Outta Compton.”
How quickly did hip-hop conquer the nation and the world? In 1989, I heard a track from “Straight Outta Compton” for the first time — while I was stuck in traffic in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I remember the moment distinctly because the taxi’s radio was blaring “[Expletive] Tha Police” and I wondered what on Earth had happened back home in the couple of years I’d been away.
Hip-hop was Black, angry and unstoppable. It became the soundtrack of the lives of children who grew up in the 1990s, not only African Americans and Latinos living in big cities but also White suburban children whose mean streets were leafy suburban cul-de-sacs.
At the Super Bowl, Dre and Snoop opened with a somewhat bowdlerized version of “The Next Episode,” a track they released in 2000, and followed with “California Love,” a song Dre released with the late 2Pac in 1995. The 2003 megahit that Dre produced for 50 Cent, “In Da Club,” came next, followed by “Family Affair” and “No More Drama” from Blige (both 2001). Later came Eminem’s anthem “Lose Yourself” (2002) and Dre’s “Still D.R.E.” (1999).
In other words, most of the halftime music qualified as oldies. Only Lamar’s “m.A.A.d city” and “Alright” were more recent. I noticed that one of Pulitzer-winner Lamar’s couplets about abusive police was missing — “And we hate po-po; Wanna kill us dead in the street for sure” — but I wasn’t sure whether the elision was done by the artist or the league’s bleep-happy audio technicians. And the only moment of protest came when Eminem, at the end of his performance, took a knee a la Colin Kaepernick.
Jay-Z’s sports and entertainment company, Roc Nation, produced the show. And, pretty much from start to finish, it rocked.
I guess the question is obvious: Can hip-hop, created as an expression of rage against the status quo, survive the provisional acceptance it was granted by the establishment Sunday night? The answer is equally clear: Of course it can, just like rock ’n’ roll survived its admittance into the musical canon.
But the genre’s future impact and relevance will depend on the ability of artists such as Lamar to keep pushing boundaries. The shocking thing about Sunday’s hip-hop halftime show was that it really wasn’t shocking at all.