ATLANTA — “Welcome to Atlanta, out-of-towners!” the hip-hop carnival barker Lil Jon screamed to a full arena on Thursday night, as he baptized the Super Bowl weekend crowd with a torrent of regional hits.
It was the halftime show that never could be — a charmingly slapdash, nearly five-hour profane parade of local heroes and of-the-moment aspirants that represented a specific place and point of view too hot for an audience north of 100 million.
Though the annual mid-game concert, which lasts fewer than 15 minutes, is rarely tied to the Super Bowl’s location, this year’s choice of a headliner — the anodyne pop band Maroon 5 — has proved controversial on two fronts: First, for its lack of fealty to the host city’s constantly regenerating pool of black musical talent, and also because of reports that more au courant stars turned down the N.F.L. in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. (The late addition of the rappers Travis Scott and Big Boi, of the Atlanta duo Outkast, did little to quell the consternation and head-scratching given the three acts’ obvious incongruity.)
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Still, Atlanta has shown itself to be more than willing to make the most of the festivities. On Thursday, at the first night of the Super Bowl Music Fest at the State Farm Arena downtown, the city’s hip-hop royalty came together for a reverse-chronological survey of Atlanta music this century, from Lil Baby, 21 Savage and Migos to Ludacris, Jeezy and T.I. (The Music Fest concerts were scheduled to continue with more Super Bowl-esque lineups on Friday, with Post Malone and Aerosmith, and Saturday, featuring Bruno Mars and Cardi B.)
Though the event was temporally and nominally linked to the N.F.L. — and came with a bevy of corporate sponsorships — football felt like an afterthought, and the crowd booed when periodic commercials for the league interrupted the music.
Instead, the concert felt like the celebration of Atlanta that was unlikely to happen on Sunday. And it was part of a constellation of local events, many overseen by the Atlanta Super Bowl LIII Host Committee, that sought to highlight the city’s rich cultural past and present, including six nights of free, genre-spanning concerts at Centennial Olympic Park. (There were no shortage of unofficial parties, after-parties and after-after parties, as well, with many local artists packing multiple appearances into each night.)
“I’m not going to say anything bad about Maroon 5 — I love Maroon 5,” said Maya Neguse, a 20-year-old student, as the concert began. “It’s just that they’re not lit enough for the Super Bowl.”
Indeed, the arena was ready to move, responding with special enthusiasm to dance crazes that originated locally (“Swag Surfin,” “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” “Laffy Taffy”) and regional references. “If you went to Freaknik make some noise,” said Big Tigger, the night’s occasional M.C., at one point, referring to the storied black college spring break gathering. “If your mama went to Freaknik make some noise,” he added to much louder cheers, revealing the plethora of what he called “’90s babies” in the audience.
The night’s performances also served as a genealogical chart for the local scene. Shorter sets from the current princes of Atlanta, like 21 Savage, Lil Yachty and Lil Baby, gave way to a fuller performance by their relative elders in Migos, who welcomed to the stage everyone’s godfather, Gucci Mane. (The most notable absences of the night were from the in-between micro-generation: Future and Young Thug.)
Then came the foundational contingent — the artists who might actually be able to hold down a Super Bowl stage if Southern hip-hop could crystallize into classic rap, à la classic rock. Lil Jon, who went from crunk pioneer to EDM conqueror and is now 48, played both rapper and D.J., delivering his well-worn chants — “Get Low,” “Neva Eva (Get On My Level)” — and those of his contemporaries in Crime Mob, Ying Yang Twins and YoungBloodZ.
Ludacris, the headliner, also stuck to greatest hits and demonstrations of local unity, beginning with the anthemic “Welcome to Atlanta” and a brief cameo by Jermaine Dupri. After running through the most recognizable parts of his catalog with a full band — the first of the night — Ludacris welcomed the concert’s only female performer, Ciara, who did her best to supply feminine energy with some two dozen backup dancers.
From there, as the clock passed 1 a.m., Ludacris was joined by Jeezy (formerly Young Jeezy) and, eventually, T.I., for a brief foray into their proto-trap music. The three men, seemingly mellowed by age and success, stood shoulder to shoulder performing the 2005 song “Bang,” which warns outsiders to mind local Atlanta customs.
“When you come this city, just know,” T.I. said as the track ended. “It’s us.”