X Games Aspen music review: Illenium, Rae Sremmurd, Bazzi and Alesso
The Aspen Times
The hordes of young music fans at X Games Aspen were the first audience to hear new songs from Rae Sremmurd, an unreleased track from Illenium and the live debut of Bazzi’s hit “I.F.L.Y.” this weekend at Buttermilk. A sell-out crowd celebrated Colorado’s own Illenium on Saturday, many sporting Illenium baseball jerseys, and thousands braved sub-freezing temperatures to jump up and down in unison to Alesso’s “Years” later that night in a set punctuated by a surprise fireworks show.
Crowds were smaller than the four-show sell out of 2019, but in its sixth year of hosting shows in the 5,000-capacity temporary music arena on the Buttermilk bunny hill, X Games brought its youngest group of headliners (none over age 29) and the newest music from some of the world’s biggest pop stars.
ILLENIUM PLAYS AND REMIXES HIS BEST
Illenium, the Denver-based EDM star, brought his A-game to the homestate crowd, playing hits, crossing genres, paying homage to his beginnings and drawing and releasing the energy of the venue, making sure everyone left wanting more.
Acutely aware of how to shift energy in his largely college-aged or younger crowd, he worked it to his advantage to keep the audience entertained through a 90-minute set at the Buttermilk stage.
The tension could be felt before he even began, as crowds of teens and 20-somethings flooded into the venue 40 minutes before showtime. The relaxed drinkers settled in the back of the venue while pairs and impromptu dance parties filled out the center and a solid mass of bodies pushed against the stage, shrouded by a haze of cannabis and fogged breath.
Illenium, born Nicholas Miller, walked onstage to an erupting crowd as the quiet voiceover that leads his latest album, “Ascend,” played over the speakers.
“It’s unavoidable,” the woman’s voice began, “Just happens. When you grow up, your heart dies.”
“Who cares?” both the male response and the crowd replied in unison, voicing the dichotomy of millennial cynicism and earnestness present in any good modern EDM lyric. With that, the tension broke and the energy released.
Miller started by making his way through quick, one-chorus impressions of some of his well-known songs, including the booming voice of Foy Vance paired with heavy dubstep drops in “Blood,” and the sing-along choruses of “Crawl Outta Love” and “Where’d You Go?” Anyone unaware of the lyrics could make correct noises to the easily singable melodies.
From there, Miller worked through an eclectic medley of his catalog, ranging from well-known favorites of “Crashing,” “Sound of Walking Away,” and his remix of The Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” to less-vocal songs from his earlier career including “So Wrong” and “In Your Wake.”
Through it all, Miller acted masterfully — pounding out drum fills on an electric setup surrounding his laptop and gliding across the fretboard of his guitar, both solo and as a duet with an onstage extra. As the temperature dropped and the audience flagged, Miller kept track, timing his beat changes to pick the crowd back up, even going so far as a rallying cry, “Can you all bring some energy right now?” before launching into a reverberating, “Three, two, one!” and a dubstep breakdown.
However, as with many EDM artists hoping to play to the crowd, Miller returned to the choruses and drops of his songs multiple times. In each, he tried to make it feel fresh with different riffs or an unexpected cross into a new melody, but the latter half of the 90 minutes started eliciting feelings of deja entendu.
In the end, Miller seemed like he was going to finish his set by giving the crowd what they truly wanted: a communal moment of musical recognition.
He worked through an extended mash-up of “Sad Songs” and his newest hit with vocalist Jon Bellion, “Good Things Fall Apart.” Lyrics intertwining and audience jumping, Miller brought the crowd to a swell before one final twist: Ending the night with an unreleased song titled “Feel Something.” The crowd reacted with slight surprise, but no one stopped dancing during the residual cheer.
RAE SREMMURD DEBUTS NEW SONGS
Near the end of an hour-long set Friday night, Rae Sremmurd’s Swae Lee asked the enthusiastic crowd, “Only in Aspen for X Games, can I do some exclusive shit?”
Making his way to the edge of the mosh pit, he said he’d be watching his fans closely as they heard it for the first time: “Nobody here is going to know these words — I want to see some real reactions.”
The hip-hop duo’s DJ then spun a few minutes of the new track, featuring a trap beat and Swae repeating lines like “I got it straight out my system” and “Get that hate out my system.” Swae said he expected to release the song by the end of February, with a full solo album to follow.
The slopeside venue roared for it after Swae’s build-up. And as the track played, he hyped the spectators up, dancing, pumping his arms and head-banging among them.
The other half of the duo, Slim Jxmmi, also shared an unreleased solo song, a new collaboration with DaBaby called “Mic Check.”
Thrilling as it was to hear the new tracks, Rae Sremmurd’s performance was deflating.
The duo leaned heavily on recorded tracks spun by D_JaySremm for most of the set, singing and rapping in short bursts over the recorded versions. The X Gamers were unfazed, happy to dance and sing along to a set list packed with the Atlanta-based siblings’ string of hits as they know them, following word-for-word as Rae Sremmurd opened with a party-starting run of “No Type,” “No Flex Zone,” “Perplexing Pegasus” and “Come Get Her.”
The duo put a herculean effort into onstage antics and fan interaction — both jumping into the crowd multiple times, Slim turning the microphone over to an audience member to freestyle, Swae doing the Batusi, playing air guitar and smashing pineapples, both often lavishing praise on a rowdy, young audience Swae called “one of the littest crowds in North America.”
It’s hard to be let down by a show with so much action (lasers and fog machines, strobe lights and a story-high video screen playing animations to boot) but it was a let-down. Swae and Slim are studio wizards who’ve made some of the best hip-hop songs of the past decade, no doubt, but one of the things that’s set them apart is the distinct and often surprising interplay of Swae’s disarmingly gentle harmonies and high notes juxtaposed against Slim’s rough-edged verses. Anybody hoping to see that play out live onstage at X Games left this show disappointed, though most of this crowd didn’t seem to mind the pantomime and karaoke-style set.
Several times at the beginning or end of songs — including “Swang,” “Black Beatles” and “Sunflower” — Swae did sing a verse a capella or he vamped, plugging references to Colorado, snowboarding, Aspen and X Games into the most familiar of Rae Sremmurd lyrics.
The chilly midwinter air may have hampered the duo’s vocals, of course, with the temperature in the 30s. After closing the set with “Powerglide,” Swae hinted that the cold might have slowed him down: “I got pneumonia or something f—ing with y’all!”
SEXYTIME WITH BAZZI
Anybody who thinks X Games music can only move at one over-caffeinated speed should take notice, as the R&B singer Bazzi proved otherwise in a gorgeous and sleek 45-minute set Sunday afternoon. The performance was filled with Bazzi’s sex-positive slow jams, bad-boy confessionals and torch songs — tales of break-ups and raw emotions and rawer bedroom liasons.
The 22-year-old singer also treated X Games to the first live performance of his recent streaming hit “I.F.L.Y” (185 million Spotify streams and counting). The song was a high point of the evening, with the young crowd singing along to the infectious “I f—ing love you” chorus.
Bazzi was backed by a live drummer and guitarist, with an off-stage DJ piping in the electronic production. He also picked up a guitar himself for “Alone” and other songs. But the show was carried by a man and a microphone, with Bazzi singing R&B augmented by some big bass drops — the cathartic crescendos of “Why” and “Mine” were highlights — and that booming drum set. It was an organic breath of fresh air.
As a songwriter, he can turn heartbreak, longing and devotion into perfect pop constructions like the set-opening “Paradise.” As a performer, he can sell it without crossing the line into cheese-pop territory. He gave X Games a feel-good comedown after a weekend of bombastic EDM and hip-hop sets from Alesso, Illenium and Rae Sremmurd. His was lighter on the pyrotechnics and electronic sounds, drawing a smaller but no less devoted crowd of fans to the Buttermilk venue than his noisier predecessors.
After closing with an extended singalong “Mine,” Bazzi returned for an encore. He took fan requests for his farewell song, choosing the sultry “Focus.”
Taking the X Games music stage hours after news broke of Kobe Bryant’s death in a California helicopter crash, Bazzi — a Michigan native now based in Los Angeles — honored the NBA legend, calling him “one of my heroes growing up, one of the greatest basketball players and humans of all time.”
“I want you all to remember how lucky we all are to be at the X Games in Aspen right now alive and healthy,” he told the Buttermilk Ski Area crowd, drawing a roar of applause and a “Kobe” chant.
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On Thursday, the Wheeler Opera House will host its first virtual event since the novel coronavirus pandemic shut the theater five months ago.