The Blurry Vision music festival made an impressive debut in Oakland this weekend, bringing SZA, Migos, Anderson .Paak and Brockhampton and more to Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, a hidden gem at the Port of Oakland. With its picturesque views of shipping cranes, the Bay Bridge and the San Francisco skyline, the park provided a scenic backdrop for the festival, which featured 21 performers over two days, including some of rap and R&B's brightest stars.
Despite Oakland's wealth of talent, the booking largely overlooked the region (Kamaiyah, DJ Aux Cord and Caleon Fox were the only locals) — but SZA, Brockhampton and Kamaiyah's upbeat sets made the festival worth attending. Migos, who make some of the most fun music of our time, surprisingly didn't sound as polished live as one would expect of artists of their caliber (their vocal backing track was very audible, and Takeoff, the most skillful rapper of the three, carried the set). Few artists opted to have a live band, which would have elevated many of the performances; Anderson .Paak's set with NxWorries (which features producer Knxledge on turntables) would have sounded more dynamic with his band, the Free Nationals, instead.
Despite a few kinks, like huge lines for drinks and no jumbotrons for the people in the back, Blurry Vision was infused with good vibes. The crowd was young and diverse, with Instagram-worthy makeup and the latest streetwear fashions. The fest had only one stage, feeling more laid-back and intimate than similarly sized events from its promoter, Goldenvoice, the company behind Coachella. Middle Harbor Shoreline Park offered people plenty of space to spread out and dance; weed smoke filled the air as the sun set over the Bay.
Check out highlights from our favorite performances and a photo slideshow below.
Brockhampton Brought a Helicopter on Stage
Prior to Brockhampton's performance at sunset on Saturday, Blurry Vision felt somewhat sleepy. Without eye-catching set designs or live bands, solo artists like Roy Wood$ and Isaiah Rashaad were easy to tune out. It wasn’t that they weren’t giving their performances their all, but rather, as emerging artists, they hadn’t elevated their shows from club scale to large-scale festival level yet.
Brockhampton, however, are maximalists. They took the stage with a string ensemble and replica helicopter. Their cellist and violinists wore sand-colored outfits resembling military fatigues, with blue face paint recalling Brockhampton’s Saturation III album cover. Kevin Abstract and his crew of five rappers (out of the group's total 15 members) wore matching white tees and baggy blue jeans with bulletproof vests, some emblazoned with words like “fiend” and others, more shockingly, with the n-word (hard “R”) and f-word (the gay slur).
The multiracial rap group, with its many openly gay members, seemed to be reclaiming these harmful terms (“What are the rules for breakfast today? / What are the words I'm forbidden to say?,” Abstract rhymed on the defiant “Boogie"). Their militaristic set evoked several ideas — imperialist and police violence, for instance, or the fact that America today can feel like a battleground. The queer and black artists on stage looked like they were ready to fight back.
Brockhampton are expert showmen: the string musicians shredded on their instruments while the rappers headbanged, ordering the crowd to start a mosh pit. (It turns out the mosh pit is an equalizer, and can make straight men dance to descriptions of gay sex.) Drawing on their shtick of calling themselves a boy band (even though they’re a lot closer to a punk band), they occasionally stepped and danced in unison, uncoordinated and endearing. The group's flows were dynamic, with an alchemy of distinct voices comparable to firecrackers like Method Man and Redman. Their Blurry Vision set proved the young, scrappy collective has the potential to become cultural change makers, and that they have a bright future ahead.
SZA Made Everyone Feel Like Her Best Friend
Even with a No. 2 album on Billboard, a handful of Grammy nominations and a headlining set at Blurry Vision, SZA introduced herself to the audience on Saturday night as humbly as an artist promoting her first mixtape. In many ways, her onstage persona resonated with the carefree energy of a lot of Oakland girls, with her sporty style; big wild hair instead of a perfectly coiffed weave; and an uninhibitedness to dance crazy and gig instead of striving to appear doll-like or sexy. She also possesses the rare ability to bare her soul to a crowd of tens of thousands, making each person in the audience feel like her best friend.
That casual authenticity helps explain why SZA's debut album CTRL became a Bible to twenty-something straight and bi women for its incisive commentary on the state of dating as a millennial. The audience cathartically sang along with her hilarious kiss-off to an emotionally unavailable dude on “Doves in the Wind” (laughing that he's no better than a "rubber substitute"). People swayed arm in arm as SZA sang “god bless these twentysomethings” (on “20 Something”), letting out a collective sigh of acceptance about the uncertainty of the future.
SZA’s voice, which she uses as nimbly and dynamically as a skilled trombone player, sounded robust and crisp, and her chemistry with her band was infectious. “Go Gina” turned into a psychedelic pop jam session a la Tame Impala, and “The Weekend,” one of her best-known radio singles, got a funkified, double-time makeover. “Thank you Oakland," she exclaimed as the lights of the Bay Bridge sparkled, "you have a beautiful city."
Kamaiyah Represented for the Town
Kamaiyah enjoyed a triumphant homecoming on the second day of Blurry Vision. Among a roster of out-of-town artists, her sound stood out as something distinctly grown in Oakland, with funky, bass-heavy beats that sample the likes of Too Short and Tony! Toni! Toné! Kamaiyah hit the stage in a Missy Elliott-inspired jumpsuit: half purple and half black, emblazoned with her "K" monogram. Backup dancers spun, grooved and stepped behind her, with retro choreography that called to mind '90s girl groups like TLC. (At one point during the set, one of them twerked in a vertical split.)
The crowd was rapt from the start; some sang along while others chatted excitedly, trying to identify her samples and prove their Bay Area cred. Kamaiyah called for cheers for the independent women, spitting sex-positive anthems and party rockers from A Good Night in the Ghetto with crisp perfection. After running through "Freaky Freaks," "Mo Money Mo Problems" and other favorites from her debut, she rapped "Dope B-tch" with the crowd approvingly echoing the refrain, "Straight up out of Oakland," affirming Kamaiyah's position as the reigning Bay Area rap queen.