Camp Flog Gnaw’s Mystery Headliner Was A Gamble That Didn’t Pay Off

Surprise guests are par for the course at most music festivals, but this weekend at Tyler The Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, fans tested the limits of what’s acceptable as far as unexpected pop-ins. Jaden Smith appearing during his sister Willow’s set? Fine. Tyga — or even Stormy Daniels — pulling up on YG for a rowdy performance of “Go Loko?” Dandy. But when the “mystery headliner” turned out to be one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, the crowd turned nasty, sparking an intense debate online about proper festival decorum and the “entitlement” of fans who built up their expectations based on little more than speculation.

It’s a real shame, too, because now the narrative has been dominated by the last 20 minutes of the festival rather than the two days preceding Drake’s embarrassing moment. The eighth year of the Carnival — and its second at the Dodger Stadium location — saw it moving past the growing pains of its last iteration and showing how good a masterfully-planned music festival really can be. It just forgot to stick the landing, as much as a result of ambitious overreach as any failure on the part of its organizers — or Tyler The Creator, who curates the festival’s lineup each year.

The thing about Camp Flog Gnaw is that, at its root, it’s still very much an Odd Future festival. Its lineup each year is built around the same family of artists — Tyler, Earl, The Internet, Taco, Mike G, Left Brain, and Domo Genesis — and filled out by their friends and immediate cohort. Groups like Brockhampton are a spinoff of the anarchic aesthetic the rabble-rousing Odd Future pioneered at the beginning of the decade. HER and Goldlink and Blood Orange are Tyler’s peers and collaborators. Yasiin Bey is a stylistic forebear. So bringing in artists like 21 Savage, YG, DaBaby, and Drake were big swings at mainstream appeal that, for the most part, worked to expand the range of Flog Gnaw’s stylistic landscape.

However, Drake may very well have been too far afield of Odd Future’s antiestablishment posturing — Drake, for all intents and purposes, is the establishment that they once railed against. Of course, their adherents would view his participation as antithetical to the spirit of the fest — prickly, isolated, emo teens and 20-somethings don’t want a 33-year-old telling them he’s upset. Ironically, the traits that would have endeared him to this crowd just a decade ago won’t fly now that he’s at the very height of accomplishment in the music business. He took it in stride, though.

It probably doesn’t help that the “mystery guest” aspect allowed fan speculation to get out of hand. In the same way The Force Awakens wound up Star Wars fans to the point that many of them hated the anticlimactic “reveals” in The Last Jedi, fans who worked themselves up for an appearance by Frank Ocean wouldn’t have been able to enjoy anyone other the Blonde singer — even, as Tyler put it, “the biggest artist on the f*cking planet.” The setlist, largely comprised of album cuts and quick clips from his older hits, was also a bold, strange choice, as pointed out by some critics on Twitter.

For what it’s worth, from my vantage point nearer to the back of the crowd than the front, it seemed the vast majority of the audience enjoyed the set as much as Tyler intended. A vocal minority managed to ruin it for everyone else, which is a sinkingly familiar feeling after the last three years, which is a shame, because as with that overall cultural shift, things were pretty much cruising along swimmingly ’til then. The festival’s organizers made even more changes — some subtle, some large — to address some of the logistical issues from the previous year that made this year seem even more fun, if a little subdued in comparison to the recklessness of the prior edition.

One thing that made a big difference was the way the organizers matched the artists to their respective stages much better. Last year, entire sets had to be cut short because of overcrowding. This year, by shifting the more raucous performers to the bigger stage and prioritizing the more mellow acts, like Willow Smith, HER, Goldlink, Summer Walker, and Daniel Caesar, on the Flog stage, the dangerous pushing situation that plagued that stage last year was mitigated. Moving Earl to smaller Gnaw stage made better use of his more subdued energy — the smaller space filled up more quickly, but he was able to keep the smaller crowd engaged better than he was the giant crowd at last year’s Flog stage set.

Meanwhile, the artists on the bigger Camp stage made exceptional use of the added production value, especially FKA Twig, whose set was a bit of a revelation for this grumpy old critic. I can’t say it improved her music for me, but it convinced me: FKA Twigs is one of those artists you must see live to get the full experience. The Internet is another, but for a different reason; their bulletproof grooves work in any format, but Syd and Steve’s electric swagger and chemistry amplifies the impact of their music so much.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see the turnout for Yasiin Bey, worried as I was that this “old man” pick wouldn’t fly with the Gen-Zers who make up the majority of Tyler’s fan base. While it did take a while to fill up the Gnaw stage space, I was impressed at the apparent cross-generational appeal of a rapper experienced enough to have been a hero to a whole different set of teenage rebels before this one. His welcome reception compared to Drake’s I chalk up to a stylistic similarity to Earl Sweatshirt, who also closed out the Gnaw stage on Sunday, as well as a legacy of staunch antagonism of the mainstream.

Camp Flog Gnaw is still a walky festival, and with the Dodger Stadium parking lot venue, it doesn’t seem that it’ll ever be completely convenient to get around, so the timing on many of the sets — especially for someone who wants to see as many of the artists as possible — means missing out of valuable performance minutes marching between the Camp and Flog stages mostly. There is a shortcut built in to get from Flog to Gnaw, but only one way, which might be something to try to address next time around. Camp Flog Gnaw is still one of the best festival experiences for your money, but apparently, fans in the future will also have to measure their expectations.