SAN FRANCISCO — Rapper Lil Nas X has had a breakout 2019. Thanks to “Old Town Road” and debut album 7, he racked up a bevy of award nominations, including six possible Grammys: Record of the Year, Album of the Year and Best New Artist. Advertised at the top of the bill of radio station Wild 94.9’s Jingle Ball at The Masonic on Sunday, many likely assumed he’d be the headliner.
That wasn’t the case, as Lil Nas X was sandwiched between Detroit artist Quinn XCII and singer-songwriter Charlie Puth. Still, with Quinn XCII having performed a solid 10-song set, it was logical to assume that the buzz-worthy rapper would at least match that, right? Checking his recent performances, at least eight songs seemed logical. So many fans seemed authentically confused when Lil Nas X called it a set after just five tunes. Sure, 7 clocks in at just 18 minutes in all. But there’s got to be ways to stretch out material to play at least that long, right?
The brevity wasn’t explained. Perhaps it was part of the plan. Or perhaps Lil Nas X was grieving rapper Juice WRLD, who had died earlier Sunday at 21 years old after a reported medical emergency in Chicago. His set included a shortened performance of the late artist’s track “Lucid Dreams,” with his image displayed on the screen behind the stage. He wore a red and black suit with yellow flames; shirtless and showing toned abs, a sparkly belt, a black choker with chains dangling from it, and boots. But despite the flashy appearance, Lil Nas X seemed restrained in his performance.
The rapper opened with his second hit, “Panini.” Perhaps overshadowed by his master hit and its video, his voice was a true highlight on this night. It was gravelly, deep without being overpowering and felt like a good fit for grunge music, of all genres. He then talked about how he’s working on a second album before performing “Don’t Want It,” an unreleased track that he described as being about the rise of his career in music.
Next came “Rodeo,” (with Cardi B’s feature as a backing track). Western imagery flashed on the screen: translucent bulls, foothills, cacti and synthetic-looking cowboys and cowgirls. Following the Juice WRLD tribute, with him rapping over the actual song, he quickly transitioned to “Old Town Road;” the 2:37-runtime quickly blew by, and he was walking off the stage.
That left it to Puth and Quinn XCII to carry the load of the show. And, well, if you were a fan of rap and came for Lil Nas X, you may have gone home unhappy. Or if you preferred pop, perhaps you shrugged it off and moved on.
Quinn XCII, while technically a rapper, has a sound that hews equally close to pop and even reggae. Puth is a throwback pop singer-songwriter. His piano-led tunes fit on Top 40 radio like Wild 94.9 now but, live, they received interpretations that leaned on R&B, funk, jazz and even some lounge.
The Detroit artist took the stage backed by a keyboardist and drummer, and wore a green windbreaker with “Mutual Friends”—the name of his creative group that includes Chelsea Cutler and Ayokay—emblazoned in the back. He opened with the melodic, poppy “Sad Still,” which addresses mental health. That song transitioned to “Candle,” which swayed with a breezy reggae rhythm.
The majority of the set slowly built in energy with songs like “Autopilot,” “Full Circle,” fan favorite “Stacy” and “Holding Hands.”
“Straightjacket” had his fastest bars of of the night, and fans sang along to the intro, while ballad “Always Been You” returned to breezy pop. After a cover of Dominic Fike’s current radio hit, “3 Nights,” he asked the room to get quiet for a moment of silence for Juice WRLD. It was just a couple of seconds but long enough to see how far the late artist’s influence has spread in a short time.
Following this break, Quinn XCII picked the pace back up with early hit “Flare Guns” and a handful of other songs.
Charlie Puth, the headliner, attracted a certain demographic in the audience—the females. Wearing a white tank top and slinging a massive keytar, he led his band through a set of songs that blended pop, R&B, jazz and some funk. Opening with “How Long,” Puth laid out a chunky ’70s groove on his instrument. The forward-charging “Mother,” had some early ’90s vibes, while during “We Don’t Talk Anymore,” Puth’s guitarist noodled around on an acoustic instrument until the bombastic drumming took over and carried the song home.
Some knowledgeable fans wished Puth a happy birthday. He’d turned 28 earlier in the week, but, ever-bashful, he played it for a joke.
“Thank you it is my birthday! I’m now 16 years old. … I joined TikTok,” he dead-panned, before proceeding to explain how the platform works without acknowledging that Vine did it first years earlier.
At another point during the performance, Puth talked about getting a puppy, who’s started to travel with him to some shows.
On many songs, such as “Done for Me,” he sung in falsetto, which elicited some of the louder ovations from the front of the crowd. On others, he demonstrated why he’s more than a run-of-the-mill artist. His piano playing, particularly of the jazz and lounge variety, was several steps above what’s called for from a pop star.
One of the set’s biggest highlights came during mid-tempo R&B jam “Suffer,” which featured not just a tasteful jazzy keyboard interlude but a Lenny-Kravitz-like guitar solo.
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.