Buku Music + Art Project Shakes Up Mardi Gras World

Last weekend New Orleans' 6th annual Buku Music + Art Project took over the banks of the Mississippi River once again for two days of beats, lasers, and body glitter. Buku's lineup leans hard on trending EDM and hip-hop acts, from radio breakouts like Travis Scott and Lil Yachty, to artists like Slushii (read our review of his appearance in Atlanta) and Aminé who have mined niche audiences from the comment sections of YouTube and SoundCloud.

The festival's crowd skews as young as most of its lineup. Bedazzled college girls and their tank top-wearing male companions skip about the grounds to a non-stop cacophony of drops and trap beats. One thing Buku has going for it is that no matter where you find yourself, there's always a party. Between the festival's five main stages are unknown groups performing under LED-lit tents and roving DJs blasting tunes from makeshift shopping cart rigs. A communal vibe flows heavily, leading to very few problems on site, unless you consider losing your light-up hula hoop or having to fish one of your friends out of the river a problem. (Report on the person that jumped in the river.)

Like most festivals, deciding which acts to catch becomes a real Choose Your Own Adventure scenario. On Day One I opted to start in The Ballroom with Car Seat Headrest, one of the few rock acts on the bill. As their rollicking set came to a close with “Unforgiving Girl,” Will Toledo, CSH's creator and front man, thanked the crowd for choosing rock and roll. “We realize we're one of the only non-electronic groups here. So thanks for checking us out.” You're welcome, Will.

One of the Friday headliners, Young Thug, cancelled his appearance at the Power Plant stage last minute due to “a personal emergency,” which is open to interpretation and may or may not be related to his allegedly slapping a woman at an Atlanta nightclub. But local boy Juvenile did Buku a favor and jumped in to fill the slot with a well-executed delivery of his hits, many of which gave way to a cappella sing-alongs with the crowd. Juvenile played close to his roots with a shoutout to New Orleans. “We still here. Through hurricanes, through tornadoes, we still here.”

I then moved back into The Ballroom to catch Thundercat's set. Watching him live as part of a stripped-down three piece, it was apparent why artists like Kendrick Lamar and Flying Lotus have tapped him for their projects. He played a handful of tracks from his phenomenal new album, Drunk, the whole time locked into a smooth combination of classic R&B, jazz, and yacht rock.

Grizmatik made sense as a proper segue after Thundercat, so I headed back to the mammoth Power Plant stage. GRiZ and Gramatik's live collaboration is chock full of upbeat funk and jazz samples. Watching their set I thought, “I bet they loved Moby when they were kids.” Less than a minute later they looped in a sample of Bessie Jones' “Sometimes,” popularized by Moby in his single “Honey.” Called it.

I grabbed a beer to reward myself for the Moby reference and headed back to The Ballroom to check out Sleigh Bells (Check out our review of their recent show in Atlanta). The duo of Alex Krauss and Derek Miller were joined by touring guitarist Ryan Primack of Poison the Well for a metal-infused sweat fest of a ride through the band's multi-album catalog. Miller seemed to be pestered by tech issues, but Krauss made up for it with an energetic performance, even during those songs that sound too much to me like Evanescence.

I ran back out to the Power Plant stage for a bit to catch a few songs from Travis Scott's set. He held it down. Nothing mind-blowing, other than the pyrotechnic smoke cannons that kept blasting from the front of the stage. That was tight as hell.

I was excited to close out the first night by watching Lil Yachty in the Float Den, an actual Mardi Gras float warehouse that had been transformed into a performance space for the weekend. I'm well aware of the criticisms against Yachty's music, but I love the genuine goofiness and positivity that he exudes. But the set sucked. He fell prey to what too many rappers do at live shows: scream every word as if they don't have a microphone connected to an amplification system run by a professional sound person. He seemed insecure, asking the crowd to shout back “Lil Boat” dozens of times. He also cut most of his songs short with an abrupt gunshot sound effect followed by a “Lil Boat” drop. But I'm sure he'll be fine.

Day Two was off to a slower start, with the crowd obviously partied out from the night before and saving up their energy (and drugs) for the night to come. Buku organizers clearly know their audience and scheduled accordingly with local artists and lesser known acts.

As the sun set, more people filed in and things began to pick up. Much like Car Seat Headrest the day before, Brooklyn experimental rock dudes Yeasayer knew what they were up against with their criminally under-attended show in The Ballroom. They played it loose, cracking jokes, dropping local references, and taking requests from fans.

In what was possibly the best performance of the entire festival, Run the Jewels (Read our review of their debut in Charlotte) destroyed a massive Power Plant stage crowd with a tight hour of their most popular tracks and the best cuts from their new RTJ3 release. In addition to drum-tight renditions of their songs, El-P tried his hand at poetry as his alter ego Coffee House Jaime and announced his recent engagement before launching into “Stay Gold.” Killer Mike, everyone's big brother for the night, paused for a minute and threatened to personally handle any dudes getting grab-assy with women in the pit and reminded everyone to “get you a best friend that doesn't look like you.” That's when I cried real human tears.

In the interest of pure sensory overload, Buku peppers the festival grounds with plenty of art, both stationary and interactive. It goes way beyond the Bob Marley blacklight posters and "souvenir tobacco devices" found at similar events. Mirroring the Power Plant stage is a three-story scaffolding rig housing over a dozen graffiti artists each working on their own elaborate murals throughout the weekend. The midway connecting both ends of the property is covered by a swirling LED canopy, with lasers shooting just over the heads of passersby. Think Las Vegas' Fremont Street Experience for tripping millennials. And then there's BUKulture, a handpicked selection of street performers, art installations, flash mobs, and other surprises that popped up all weekend. One of the standouts was the BUKU Breakers, a dance crew who would work their way into the crowd, form a circle, and fire up a spontaneous dance-off. One of the dudes is a nerdy white guy with wire-rimmed glasses who calls himself Ill Gates the Dancing Bill Gates, which is one-hundred percent amazing.

Another major highlight of Buku was Vince Staples' set in The Ballroom. The space was packed, providing a stark contrast to Staples' setup, which was simply him alone onstage - no DJ in sight - in front of a big screen showing projections of what looked mostly like super cool Windows screensavers. His physical presence vacillated between hands-in-pockets, mic-in-the-stand stillness and fevered, cover-every-inch-of-the-stage MCing. His minimalist approach allowed for his music to cut through the crowd, especially on songs like “Outro” and “Norf Norf.” The only downside was the uncomfortable feeling I got listening to a thousand white kids singing, “I ain't never ran from nothin' but the police,” as if “the police” meant general responsibility.

I was so glued to Vince Staples' set that I completely missed the Deadmau5 show, but I got a text from our photographer that said, “He took off his mask!” so I guess that's pretty rad.

I closed out the fest in The Float Den to check out New Orleans' own “don't call us horrorcore” rappers $UICIDEBOY$. These guys have racked up big numbers online and have a rabid nationwide fan base, so I was stoked to see the live show. People were literally stampeding into the warehouse when the show kicked off, so I was ready to turn up. But much like Lil Yachty, it was mostly a bunch of screaming over their own pre-recorded songs, as if they had been hired as their own hype men for the night. I connected with them over their visuals, which included worn out VHS-style clips of Nightmare on Elm Street and Superman IV. The crowd seemed into the whole party, but I pulled a Danny Glover and said, “I'm too old for this shit,” and headed for the parking lot.

Overall, Buku did what it set out to do in a properly sufficient two days. I don't know how the festival will evolve from here, but I'll probably be back for 2018. Hell, maybe I'll even wear a tank top.

Photos by Grace Kelly for Bullet Music

Isaac Kozell

Writer and performer. New Orleans, LA.