Tupac’s hologram didn’t show up, but Mary J. Blige did. Kendrick Lamar (lightly) edited his famous line about the police, but Dr. Dre did not. 50 Cent didn’t look too comfortable rapping while inverted, but at least he got down from there. Eminem reportedly wasn’t allowed to kneel, but he did it anyway. And Dre didn’t play a single song from The Chronic, but the first hip-hop-centered Super Bowl halftime show kicked a great deal of (primarily geriatric) ass nonetheless. “This should’ve happened a long time ago,” Dre declared at a Thursday press conference, and presumably he meant back when we all were young. But as gala celebrations of primarily 20-year-old songs go, he and his super-famous pals did indeed kill it, even if they also reminded many of us how close we are to death.
It’s awfully tempting to start with Mary J. Blige, who killed more of it than anybody, but no, let’s take this in chronological order. Dr. Dre was the official headliner of the Super Bowl LVI halftime show, and he emerged onstage at SoFi Stadium—out in Inglewood, always up to no good—as a conquering hometown (well, close enough) hero awkwardly adjusting his stage outfit from behind a colossal white spaceship mixing board that probably didn’t do anything other than look cool, which was all it had to do. His stage set was an opulent moon colony’s worth of futuristic white boxes housing a full band, an ebullient crew of dancers, and various lowriders to help get everyone off the field afterward; his first superstar guest, of course, was Snoop Dogg, and quickly we moved from “The Next Episode” to “California Love,” where what Dre did (rap the line “Pack a vest for your jimmy in the city of sex” in full with an endearing stiffness) is less important than what he didn’t do. (No Tupac hologram. I can’t express to you how relieved I am about this.)
And then 50 Cent rapped “In Da Club” while hanging from the ceiling of one of those white boxes, and as the camera cut to a long shot of a foxy backup dancer it occurred to me that 50 was quite possibly stuck like that, and I can’t decide if I was rooting for that to happen or not, but in any event he looked much more comfortable right side up, even if he sounded quite winded overall. And then—I got to her as quick as I could—Mary J. Blige stole this whole goddamn thing. By muscling through “Family Affair” for starters, bringing not an ounce of hateration to this $5 billion dancerie, but it was her flamethrowing spin through “No More Drama” that turned this affair from Hey, Pretty Good to Oh, Holy Shit: Her climactic shout of No MOREEARRRGGGH was a marvel of triumphantly ugly beauty, and the closest this whole thing got to touching the Super Bowl Halftime Show God Tier along with Prince and, uh, it might still just be Prince. Give Mary her own halftime show. Give Mary her own arena tour. Give Mary her own colony on the moon.
And then, the most recent song anyone performed. (Only seven years old!) Kendrick Lamar did “Alright” with his usual beguilingly elaborate staging, emerging along with his own crew of boxed-up backup dancers with DRE DAY sashes and cavorting on what appeared to be a giant lit-up Google Maps printout of L.A. (and probably not the Inglewood part). I held my breath just for a half-second when he got to the line “And we hate popo / Wanna kill us dead in the street fo’ sho’.” He cut the word popo but otherwise rapped it straight, which was not the most incendiary thing he could’ve done, but not the most deferential, either.
For this was the first hip-hop-centered halftime show’s uneasy subtext: Dre’s cavalcade was the third consecutive Super Bowl fete produced by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, after Jay himself had very pointedly turned down an offer to headline himself in 2018 in protest of the NFL’s mistreatment of Colin Kaepernick. The question going into tonight was not Will Eminem show up and play “Lose Yourself”? (duh), but Will he take a knee at the end of it? And he did, as Dre pounded out the riff to “Still D.R.E.” on a white grand piano. (Dre warmed up with a quick nod to Tupac’s “I Ain’t Mad at Cha,” a nice tribute that didn’t draw undue attention to itself.) It was a striking image, Em kneeling and Dre pushing the show forward, luxury and defiance intertwined, even if The New York Times quickly reported that the NFL had known it was coming. Also: “Still touching the beats / Still not loving police,” Dre rapped, a little less stiffly this time, and the only word he changed was, uh, touching.
Will any of this—Eminem especially—touch off an insufferable faux-outrage news cycle? Stay tuned! But the dominant image for me will be Dre, Em, Kendrick, Mary, 50, and Snoop just standing there at the set’s end, mics in hands, soaking in the impressively rapturous applause. Actually my single favorite shot came during “Lose Yourself”: a quick cutaway to Mary and 50 reclining on a couch in one of the boxes, superstars turned gently bobbing spectators. You could read plenty into this halftime show, a long-overdue milestone for rap and another battleground in the NFL’s war for and/or against social justice. Or you could just stand (or sit!) in awe of the opulence of it all, on a night when Mary bellowing “No More Drama” was all the drama we could handle.