"Show Me That Smile Again" – The 7th Annual BUKU Project Succeeds Despite Some Growing Pains
Every young generation elicits its fair share of negative talk about “kids these days” but, if the millennials in attendance at New Orleans' 7th Annual BUKU Music and Art Project are any indication, the kids are alright. They clearly don't check the weather report before leaving the house though, as was evidenced by the innumerable amount of shirtless dudes standing alongside young women wearing the unofficial fest costume of just a bathing suit and fishnets as temperatures dipped to a damp fifty degrees. Still, as the waves parted in a sea of neon, glitter, and fog, members of the sold-out festival's 18 to 24-year-old principal demographic could be seen picking up recycling, watching out for each other and patiently rolling with the growing event's many punches.
These punches were a result of BUKU going big for its seventh installment, expanding its footprint across the train tracks that had formerly separated the festival from its parking lot. While this move simultaneously allowed for 3,000 more attendees it presented a logistical issue when, on Friday night, a freight train needed to bisect the party to deliver fidget spinners or whatever. Crew members and police scrambled to assemble barricades, blocking hundreds of people from spilling across the tracks on their way from the main Power Plant stage to the rest of the festival grounds. Despite the inconvenience and looming danger (I'm sure the train looked mighty inviting to anyone hitting the peak of their trip), everyone waited patiently and respectfully for the iron horse to pass before skipping onto the next show.
Train disruption conquered, Friday's lineup dabbled in the mild eclecticism BUKU has become known for. While being built on EDM and hip-hop, BUKU has always used its roster to bridge the gap to other genres such as rock, folk, and indie. Artists like MGMT, Bishop Briggs, and Homeshake made for logical choices that allowed for bands like A Day to Remember and Falling in Reverse to perform in The Ballroom - the venue of choice for BUKU's genre outliers. Personally, I think the bridge could have stopped short of Falling in Reverse, whose laughably bad frontman Ronnie Radke constantly appears to be more concerned with looking swole as hell than with picking one style of singing to be proficient at. Stop trying to rap, Ron; it's embarrassing.
Alongside The Ballroom, one of the newest stages at BUKU was called The Wharf. Decorated like a scrapyard clubhouse and surrounded by large, colorful shipping containers, it provided a more intimate space to see some of the hotter up-and-coming acts. One such act, Lil Xan, drew a nice crowd for his short set, the length of which was probably dictated by both his catalog and his enforced bedtime. The Wharf was also the perfect spot to see legendary house artist Green Velvet later that night, set against an impressive visual backdrop. In terms of pure visual enjoyment though, no venue could beat The Float Den. The stage sat at one end of a warehouse that stores actual Mardi Gras floats, which looked amazing when drenched in lasers and smoke. It felt like an old-school rave, with tons of sweaty partiers crammed together in a space they probably shouldn't be in. The Float Den stayed packed throughout Friday night, with incredible back-to-back sets from SNAILS, Alison Wonderland, and Virtual Self.
The main stage, The Power Plant, was slightly cursed all weekend, unfortunately. In addition to the aforementioned train issue, SZA cut her otherwise solid set short due to a sprained ankle, while MIGOS showed up nearly an hour late and trimmed their lackluster performance down to a timid half hour. After showing little in the way of personality or ambition, they thanked the crowd for making MIGOS "the greatest group in the world" - a label that is highly debatable - especially based on such an unprofessional set.
Saturday afternoon played it safe and soft as BUKU attendees trickled in slowly, both recovering from the night before and gearing up for what was to come. Chicago native Noname brought her poetic flow to The Power Plant stage just before the sunset, while the ensuing dark allowed for Illenium to bring incredibly moving sights and sounds to his performance of his album Awake. The crowd, many wearing Illenium baseball jerseys, swayed to the melodic vocals and headbanged to the deep orchestral drops while a blanket of lasers covered the field. Deviating from the official schedule, this would prove to be the last act on the main stage, as headliner Lil Uzi Vert canceled for no good reason whatsoever. While other festivals might make excuses for artists, BUKU projected the following message onstage:
“Lil Uzi Vert is still in Philadelphia and has decided not to come at the last minute. There is no reason. He just canceled on us with no advance notice. We are donating a portion of his fee to Upbeat Academy...Support artists who support their fans.”
In addition to Lil Uzi Vert's cancellation, it was a tough year for hip-hop fans at BUKU, as Ski Mask the Slump God also canceled his Saturday night appearance. Elsewhere, Rich the Kid (who rescheduled from the night before), struggled to fill a set while rapping over his own prerecorded lyrics on several songs. I couldn't help but notice the difference between these new rappers - those who show up late (if at all), cut sets short, forget their lyrics, and overuse the horn/gunshot/explosion sound effects -and a real MC like Jay Electronica, who treated a packed Ballroom to a real hip-hop show. In contrast to the newer artists, Jay was charismatic, heartfelt, informative, and killed his flow on every song. It was evident that he wanted to be there and he wanted to connect, which he did when he brought dozens of fans onstage for a song before picking three local rappers from the pack to spit sixteen bars each. Jay put on a master class, and younger rappers would do well to take notes.
As Saturday evening went on, it became apparent as to why BUKU isn't a three-day event. Bodies steadily began to pile up in uncomfortable, exhausted heaps. I counted at least fifteen people who ducked from their group to puke in nearby trash cans; I watched as a pair of EMT workers rushed a limp body through the crowd on a stretcher. But, for those with the health to carry on, Saturday provided some real treats. Sylvan Esso was certainly one of these, an artist who knew just how to structure their act to please the audience. Bassnectar meanwhile, arguably the oldest person at BUKU, did what he does best and people seemed to like it. Elsewhere, Princess Nokia showed her full range of skills to a modest gathering of folks at The Wharf stage, the small crowd enjoying the performer's rapping, singing, and dancing to Panic! At the Disco. Back in The Ballroom, Little Dragon delivered a polished, energetic set complete with a red and blue lighting scheme that made the band appear to be in 3D (which I know sounds crazy since life is already in 3D). Hey, I guess you just had to be there.
BUKU definitely had a growth spurt this year, one which came with some definite perks. That being said, it will need to grow into its shoes in 2019 if it wants to keep its momentum.
Photos by Carlie Adair for Bullet Music