One of the incredible things about hip-hop is that a quick song can feel as grand and sweeping as an album, or a novel, or a galaxy. Great rappers do a generous thing—give listeners a trove of phrases to obsess over, of inflections to imitate, of messages to absorb, and of observations to steal. When the music works, it seems effortless and impossible at once.
So the challenge facing the 2022 Super Bowl halftime show—to command the nation’s attention without compromising the art form’s complexity—was plenty formidable. It was made more difficult by featuring five equally billed headliners: Kendrick Lamar, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, and Mary J. Blige (who represented R&B as well as rap). Each of them has a catalog that could easily fill up halftime by itself. Also daunting: Embarrassingly for the NFL (and really for America as a whole), this would be the first halftime show in which hip-hop played the starring role. Rather than shying away from the enormity of the assignment, the performers pulled off a dazzling, almost overwhelming, celebration.
The stage looked like no halftime show’s before. At the center of Los Angeles’s SoFi Stadium sat a strip of mock buildings: homes, businesses, a re-creation of Compton’s Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. The design was fitting for an art form rooted in a sense of place—and for a performance with three headliners from Southern California. It also ensured a remarkably horizontal show. No one was ever that much higher up than anyone else. Pop goddesses were not diving from the rafters, and guitar heroes were not casting elephantine shadows. Rather, the audience toured from room to room, from vibe to vibe, and from host to host. The spectacle felt—to quote Blige’s hit that proved itself still vibrant after two decades—like a family affair.
Dr. Dre opened the show from behind a giant mixing board, and his centrality made sense: The perfectionist king of West Coast hip-hop played a natural ringleader, and not only because his bouncy beats pulsed for much of the set list. “We’re gonna show how professional we can be,” he had said in a pregame press conference, and every camera shot, every snatch of choreography, and every song transition felt carefully calibrated to keep the momentum going. But the event wasn’t too buttoned up. Snoop Dogg moved with his famous relaxed saunter. Blige chilled on a couch during Eminem’s performance. When the surprise guest, 50 Cent, showed up, he was hanging upside down, with the chain around his neck dangling so it read as though he was really 02 Cent.
Although the mega-medley approach inevitably meant that huge swaths of the artists’ important music had to be omitted, and quibbles can be made about who got the most time to shine, each performer managed to maintain their distinct sense of identity. After a few minutes of men performing in pseudo apartments and danceries, Blige appeared in mirrored thigh-high boots, conveying earthly steeliness and heavenly radiance at once. And in a concert full of hype-up anthems, she still got to carve out a moment for emotion with “No More Drama,” which hit like a hurricane gale. Kendrick Lamar, soon after, stuck to his role as rap’s dry-witted warrior monk. He and a phalanx of disciples emerged from cardboard cartons and marched about in patterns that seemed to hold a secret code.
The jubilance of the show was unrelenting, yet the social significance was inescapable. After Colin Kaepernick found himself without a team in 2017, some prominent Black artists boycotted the Super Bowl, but this year’s production—overseen by Jay-Z’s Roc Nation company—reflected a détente. Past post-halftime backlashes toward performers of color—Janet Jackson with her wardrobe malfunction in 2004, M.I.A. with her middle finger in 2012, Beyoncé with her Black Panthers getup in 2016—have made clear that the Super Bowl is no easy place to make a statement. Yet hip-hop, and the night’s performers specifically, is inextricable from a political conscience. Dr. Dre’s “still not lovin’ police” line made it into the set, but Lamar’s “we hate popo” didn’t. Eminem closed “Lose Yourself” by taking a knee, Kaepernick style.
The fact that commentators are already arguing over these gestures, and the gestures that weren’t made, really is a sign of progress: Surely hip-hop has been previously sidelined at the halftime show precisely because it makes conversations about race, power, and culture inevitable. But hopefully any ensuing punditry doesn’t distract too much from the joyful scale and intricacy of this long-overdue showcase. Generational nostalgia and modern relevance, protest and partying, sampled beats and live instruments (Anderson .Paak on the drums!), radicalism and commerce—the full brew was on display, and the biggest scandal should be that it hadn’t been before.