On a picturesque and comfortable spring Saturday night perfect for a baseball game, the nearly 8,000 people in Whitaker Bank Ballpark witnessed something very different when they looked toward second base: A trio of platinum-selling hip-hop acts in the form of Nelly, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and Juvenile.
For Lexington, it was a rare large-scale showcase for the musical genre that was overwhelmingly well-received by those in attendance Saturday night. The combination of artists who hit their commercial peak in the mid-1990s through the early aughts brought out a diverse crowd in age, race and gender (some sporting Nelly’s early signature look of a band-aid under the eye) that were there to dance, sing along to hits, indulge in some nostalgia or maybe all of the above.
After a short DJ set, New Orleans-based rapper Juvenile hit to the stage with a DJ and his son as his hype man. He saved full versions or snippets of some of his biggest hits like “Slow Motion” and the signature New Orleans bounce of “Ha!” toward the end of his set but won the crowd over with self-awareness and a sense of humor, asking all the “STD-free people” to put their hands in the air before shouting, “even if you didn’t come here to see me, I got your (expletive) hands up, don’t I?”
By the end of his 40-minute set, he managed to squeeze in lesser-known hits and showed love to fellow Cash Money Records groups by performing Big Tymers (“Still Fly”) and Hot Boyz (“I Need a Hot Girl”). Juvenile saved his biggest hit, “Back Dat Azz Up” for last, which cranked up the energy level in the ballpark and led plenty of ladies to respond accordingly.
A fully-reunited Bone Thugs-N-Harmony emerged right around sunset and a good portion of the crowd was ready for the group based on the amount of Bone Thugs T-shirt wearers scattered around the ballpark. Both the size of the group and its distinctive blend of melody, beats and flows from all five members was a welcome shift right out of the gate with the group's first hit “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” and later with the R&B-indebted “1st of tha Month.”
An homage section of the set paid respects some of the group’s most iconic collaborations, whether it was Eazy-E’s “Boyz-n-the-Hood” into “Foe the Love of $,” the 2Pac hit “California Love” into the collaboration “Thug Luv” or its most well-known team-up with The Notorious B.I.G., playing his early hit “Juicy” before performing “Notorious Thugs.”
Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony’s energy and setlist kept the crowd engaged, but its 50-minute set missed an opportunity to end at a peak when the group played its signature, Grammy-winning hit “Crossroads,” only to follow-up with an unknown song performed by the group's DJ. It was a generous but perplexing gesture that felt like a missed opportunity to go out on top.
Just shy of 10 p.m., Nelly came on stage with the type of confidence that only artists who have sold more than 10 million records tend to have. After opening with lesser-known hit “Party People,” he front-loaded his setlist with a combo of hits and snippets of popular collaborations that included “E.I.,” Jagged Edge’s “Where The Party At,” “Shake Ya Tailfeather,” “Batter Up” and “Air Force Ones.” He had the Kentucky crowd in his hand at that point and kept it there a little longer with his first hit “Country Grammar” for his “day one” fans (which was remixed to include the beat of Drake’s current hit single “Nice For What”) and “Ride Wit Me.” He also performed the remix of country group Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” which he bounced along to emphatically, as if it was his own hit record.
While Nelly captured the sell-out crowd’s attention early, he couldn’t seem to hold it. In addition to choosing to rap instead of rap-sing some of his hits’ trademark melodies, a mid-set dip into the latter and lesser-known portion of his catalog, along with a section where the DJ played other artist’s hits, may have led to a noticeable portion of the crowd heading for the exits. Those who stuck around to the end got to hear some of Nelly’s biggest hits, including “Hot in Herre,” his Kelly Rowland collaboration “Dilemma” and closer “Just A Dream.”
At one point, Nelly talked about how people thought he was crazy to try to bring a hip-hop show to Lexington, let-alone selling out the venue. This combination of some of the genre’s hit-making artists may not have kept the crowd from start to finish, but the overall response seemed to indicate the bluegrass may be fertile soil for more shows like it.