Last year, the NBA All-Star Game featured Fall Out Boy, Ellie Goulding and Alicia Keys. Fall Out Boy – despite performing with 2 Chainz – don’t exactly seem to fit the “urban demo” that marketing executives and Variety magazine call young black people. I still don’t know who Ellie Goulding is and Alicia Keys is fine. Just fine. Her voice might get on my nerves, but she is perfectly acceptable as entertainment at a sporting event, even if she also did the ASG in 2010. And I’m sure the NBA’s marketing executives have much better data provided by Facebook and Google about who watches the All-Star Game and what those viewers consume, but this felt like the most relevant halftime show since 2003.
2003 was the year of the jersey dress where Mariah Carey donned the numbers two-three to send Michael Jordan off on what was soon-to-be his third (and final) retirement from basketball. Before then, the NBA was using Elton John and Harry Connick Jr., old white men who were past their prime and would appeal to a mid-30s or 40s white consumer. Obviously people of color listen to those musicians, but they would hardly be confused with Connick Jr.’s target demographic. After 2003, the All-Star Halftime Show had Beyoncé before it was cool, John Legend twice, Harry Connick Jr. again, and one time LeAnn Rimes with Big & Rich. I’m sure people who love country also love the NBA and it’s possible to love boring music and alley-oops, but it felt like there was a missed opportunity.
Basketball and rap music go together like no other sport and genre of music. I don’t ever remember the ’87 New York football Giants recording a glam rock anti-drug song (unlike the L.A. Lakers) or Barry Bonds putting out a bluegrass mixtape while being investigated for steroids (unlike Ron Artest). And yet the only two times the NBA has used rap music at all during the ASG was in 2012 when Pitbull performed, or the year before, during Rihanna’s hit medley, when Drake and Kanye appeared briefly. It’s no accident that Rihanna’s is the only one I remember and the most likely to be found on an NBA player’s iPod before a game. This year the league seemed to figure out how its featured employees might have the same music taste as their fans, all without alienating any of the old folks who’ve been watching since before Jordan.
There were only a few bars rapped between the first and second half of the game, but with Kendrick Lamar the night before and Pharrell’s fantastic set during the player introductions, they didn’t need rappers. This year’s halftime show started out with Trombone Shorty, a New Orleans trombone and trumpet player who’s been hard at work playing background on benefit CDs, backing late night TV bands or touring artists in the city, and who appeared on the show Treme (the David Simon vehicle named after the N.O. neighborhood Shorty was born in) a few times. It was the perfect plan, getting a local veteran to play as an honor to the great hosting city, with enough bounce provided by his backing band Orleans Avenue to get anyone moving. And that was before he introduced Dr. John, an old session player who’s become a Nawlins legend with six Grammy awards. And that was before Janelle Monae and Earth, Wind & Fire came out.
Dr. John, dressed in a purple suit complete with the fedora and voodoo beads, performed the New Orleans classic “Iko Iko,” with the emotional weight brought on by a man who can tell of the song’s inception first hand. After, Gary Clark Jr. – who did the national anthem – came out to do his song “Bright Lights.” Then somehow, the show kicked up a notch when Janelle Monae slid across the stage in her black and white ensemble to do a song from her 2013 hit album, The Electric Lady. After her song, like a car’s secret sixth gear or a waitress asking about dessert after a huge meal, she introduced Earth, Wind & Fire. The legendary band did their biggest hit “Shining Star” with everyone mobbing on stage. The inspirational song brought down anyone’s jaw who wasn’t already amazed at the spectacle. The NBA just put on a damn show.
That performance was flawless, with everything coming together. Rather than chasing some Super Bowl extravaganza, they just got great-ass musicians to play some great-ass music. But what stuck with me the most was Pharrell’s performance before tip-off. P has current hits, he showed as much performing parts of “Blurred Lines,” “Get Lucky” and “Happy.” But stepping on the stage to “Frontin’” and bringing out Nelly, Busta Rhymes, Diddy and Snoop to do all these songs from just over 10 years ago – still recent enough to be remembered by 21-year-old Kyrie Irving – felt special to me. Players coming into the NBA now barely remember Michael Jordan, and this somewhat-oldies set seemed to acknowledge that. Even with all the silliness of the Friday and Saturday events, the actual All-Star Game flourished without overtly trying to court baseball or football fans. More importantly, for the first time since 1983, the All-Star Game music was cool again.
Watch Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell and Trombone Shorty & Friends’ performances below.