Though much has been made of the painful decline of the music festival, conspicuous this year with a number of black spots across the festival calendar, there’s no doubt that they cater for more diverse crowds than ever. While the raveheads and electronic aficionados mourn the implosion of the inaugural Bloc London following overcrowding, Saturday finds Hyde Park shaken by more Pro Green undercuts, fake tan and triple-layer lashes than this esteemed London park has ever seen, as a selection of chart titans take over for Wireless.
Everything at this festival is upside down. Girls hold their boyfriends aloft on their shoulders, shiny-ponytailed X-Factor starlets are seen being hauled by minders to the toilets and headliners play in daylight, finishing just after 10pm. Drake is Saturday’s sole headliner, with the other stages winding up before he starts. Even the top billed acts on the surrounding stages don’t get more than 35 minutes; it makes for a hectic experience if you’re used to picking and choosing your headliners as darkness falls.
Rihanna comparisons come thick and fast when Rita Ora’s early afternoon set begins to play out. Hailing from the Roc Nation stable, sure enough she works a similar image, but her music is more turbo-charged, the distinct flavour of a London girl bred (if not born), belting out earworm choruses over manic drum ‘n’ bass beats. Many of the charts’ R’n’B and rap superstars currently sound like they got asked to MC in Ibiza 15 years ago, but Jay-Z’s protégé pursues a sound that is altogether fresher and younger; it’s a perfect start to the afternoon.
Contrary to expectations, Professor Green is rather good; an unashamed crowd-pleaser, his instant hits bring the sun out. In a way he suits Wireless perfectly; he’s not big on substance but if you plug into the atmosphere from the beginning, he’s arresting and enormous fun. You don’t get the sense that the Hackney rapper-made-good will command attention for years to come but he makes the most of his turn in the spotlight with aplomb.
By mid-afternoon, the herbal force is strong for Wiz Khalifa’s party hip-hop, settling over the crowd like a comforting extra layer of ozone. Pinging onstage like an overjuiced furby, the rapper heavily channels Snoop Dogg’s chronic-friendly hip-hop; if his lyrics are anything to go by, the man is stoned 24/7. ‘Taylor Gang’ slams and swings, and the bombastic ‘Black and Yellow’ is satisfying; though the drugs/girls schtick really wore out its creative welcome in the rap world a long time ago, Khalifa’s poppy take on it is strangely charming and it’s difficult not to warm to him.
Six months ago, Canadian Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, was giving his album away for free. Today the crush to see him is so bad that you physically can’t get near the tent, let alone the stage, and disgruntled fans complain about crowd control. The singer and producer’s downbeat, unsettling r’n’b and his work with Drake have catapulted him to the top of the tree, but his liquid vocals are only really audible to those who manage to cram themselves inside. Outside all you can hear is the vague crunch of the bass; arguably he should have been on the main stage this evening.
Nicki Minaj, the amazing inflatable cartoon rapper, is the second biggest draw of the day. She’s a walking Manga cartoon, a cyber explosion of hype and attitude; this is what would happen if you genetically spliced Lil’ Kimand Dolly Parton. Rumours of her rapping skills have been greatly exaggerated but her flow isn’t what’s got her this far; there’s something mythological about her. Like Gaga, even if you don’t like her you can’t stop looking at her. The girl who declared she’s got bigger balls than anyone knows how to clutch the crowd, and even fans in the crowd discussing her weak points still holler and bounce on cue, responding with affection to every hook.
By 9pm Drake is holding court over Hyde Park. His low-key, self-assured songs are pumped up for the stage; inevitably the quiet studio details are lost in the mix, replaced by several thousand voices in unison. His whip-smart lyrics become mottos for this audience, “YOLOing” their hearts out and hyped up by another walk-on from Nicki Minaj partway through. The world is his for the taking. But the glistening, pinpoint perfection of his recent opus, Take Care, is never going to sound its best re-enacted in a swampy open-air setting with the night not yet upon us, blasted out of speakers over the heads of the crowd. Drake’s best moments sound like dark corners, sideways looks, bliss and revenge, and as loved as he is by this crowd, as much as he laps up the adulation, this isn’t the prime setting for him.