This Sunday, 14 years after exposing Janet Jackson’s left breast to the world at Super Bowl XXXVIII, Justin Timberlake will return to headline the 2018 halftime show.
While his re-appearance at the event suggests that the organisers have forgiven him the innumerate complaints from outraged parents and the $550,000 dollar fine imposed by broadcasting watchdog the FCC, not everyone has been exonerated after that night: it has also been 14 years since a hip-hop artist was at the forefront of the show.
On that day, it was Puff Daddy who took centre stage, not that anyone remembers anything beyond that fateful swipe of the ex-boy band star’s wrist. It seems that after this, while Timberlake emerged more or less unscathed, rap music (perhaps by association?) became seen as a source of controversy where placid, family-friendly entertainment was required.
Footage of Puff Daddy’s performance below (warning: it seems to have been shot on a potato).
While the half-time show, like the Grammys – which last week slumped to their lowest ratings in history – has long been a ceremonial affair rather than a true representation of the state of the music industry, as a rap music fan, it still stings.
It’s the biggest stage in the world, after all. Last year, Lady Gaga’s performance was watched by 117m people in the US alone; the worldwide audience likely stretched beyond 120m.
And at a time when hip-hop stars are contributing to, and arguably dominating, the charts more than ever (in 2017, newcomer Cardi B joined an elite trio alongside Ashanti and the Beatles by landing her first three hot 100 hits in the top ten at the same time; last week, Drake broke Ed Sheeran’s Spotify record for the most streams in one day) and Timberlake is at the lowest ebb of his 20-plus year career after his unconvincing swerve towards neo-country, it seems odd that this will not be represented in Minneapolis on Sunday.
Rap’s biggest stars– at present Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar and aforementioned crooner Drake – all released no.1 charting albums last year, and there’s a serious case to be made that each of them is deserving of that coveted performance slot.
Jay Z has enjoyed commercial and – for the most part – critical success across a 22-year-long career, and is viewed as the last of the hip-hop legends still banging out decent records. Plus, he’d probably be able to convince Beyonce to pop out for Crazy in Love, and who wouldn’t love that?
Drake has become the first true crossover star, smashing through the pop music charts with hits like Hotline Bling, One Dance and Passionfruit. He’s probably the most obvious choice, if not the best one.
That accolade is reserved for Kendrick, who, though not the most family-friendly artist, has proven himself countless times on awards shows to be one of the greatest living performers.
His show at last year’s MTV VMAs was, as the kids say, “fire”. That is to say, he literally set one of his backing dancers ablaze.
— Access (@accessonline) August 28, 2017
He was once again the star of the show at this year’s Grammys, opening the ceremony with a blistering, multi-faceted performance that featured a rendition of his U2 collaboration XXX (the rockers made a brief appearance, too), fist-pumping soldiers, and a mesmerising rap to the beat of a large Japanese taiko drum, which was pounded by a dancer in white robes.
All this, despite the fact that he has been overlooked time and again by the Grammys voters in favour of more marketable acts: Macklemore in 2013, Taylor Swift in 2016, and Bruno Mars this year.
Is the Super Bowl too conservative an affair to give Kendrick the platform he deserves?
It’s not hard to work out the thought process that has brought about Justin Timberlake’s headline slot: the halftime show went ultra conservative in the years following the nip-slip, rolling out ageing rockstar after saggy songster until 2011 (U2, The Who, The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney all headlined during this period), when it began to re-introduce pop music to the mix. Organisers were very quickly bitten again, when controversy-thirsty rapper MIA showed her middle finger to the cameras during a brief appearance at Madonna’s show in 2012.
Timberlake in 2018 is not the same beast he once was: one of the song’s he’s expected to roll out during the ceremony is Can’t Stop The Feeling, his sickly sweet 2016 hit from the soundtrack of the animated movie Trolls. He, like Katy Perry, Coldplay and Gaga before him, now feels like a safe and sturdy choice.
But a political, hip-hop driven performance of Kendrick’s ilk is not unprecedented. Arguably the most memorable show since the turn of the century was Beyonce’s breathtaking rendition of Black Lives Matter anthem Formation in 2016, which featured Black Panthers uniforms and an overt nod to revolutionary leader Malcolm X. The song in question leans heavily upon a modern hip-hop sound; it was produced by none other than Kendrick Lamar collaborator Mike WiLL Made It.
Rap music is too dominant a force in popular music nowadays for a couple of indiscretions to rule out the possibility of a rap-forward Super Bowl. If it’s reliability and widespread appeal that you need, dip a toe in the ocean with borderline popstar Drake. But, for the love of god, please let me see a Kendrick Lamar halftime show in my lifetime. It would be precisely the fire and fury that the world needs.
Super Bowl LII is live on BBC1 from 11:30pm on Sunday 4th February