Metro Boomin Brings Out John Legend, Swae Lee for Red Bull Symphonic

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How do you seamlessly blend the connective tissue between hip-hop and classical? Easily, if you’re Metro Boomin. On Thursday night, the Atlanta producer partnered with Red Bull Symphonic to translate his music into widescreen at Los Angeles’ Dolby Theatre, playing master of ceremonies during a precisely 90-minute set that featured a 43-piece ensemble counting strings, brass and a harp to boot.

Over the past decade, Metro has become one of hip-hop’s production titans by evolving his cinematic sound through a string of releases, from his 2018 debut studio album “Not All Heroes Wear Capes” to this year’s “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” soundtrack. Throughout his career, which dates back to early work with Gucci Mane and Future, his dark, menacing productions have expanded and bloomed, swirling stringed instruments and samples into often cold and sniping beats. The foundation had already been laid — Metro just needed the resources to bring it to life.

It makes sense, then, that the 30-year-old collaborated with Red Bull Symphonic for the one-night-only concert, transforming some of his biggest hits into delectable and — pardon the pun — booming hybrids. The event seamlessly closed the gap between hip-hop and orchestral music, featuring a victory lap of hits and guests that included Swae Lee, Nav and John Legend.

The night was initially conceived when Red Bull approached Metro with the idea. It was an instant yes from Metro, whose theatrical flair has brought him to Coachella and into the Marvel-verse. “Music is music,” Metro told Variety prior to the performance. “I’ve always looked at it that way. Everything, every song is a certain tempo and it’s in a certain key. I don’t care what kind of music it is. I feel like orchestral elements in hip-hop have always been involved in some kind of way.”

Metro’s set was as full-bodied as it was meticulous, which comes as no surprise. Perfection is de rigueur for Metro, whose attention to detail has made him a pioneering figure in the southern rap scene. His discography is dotted with full-length collaborations with 21 Savage and Big Sean as well as solo ventures, each as sprawling and defined as the next. And his track record shows for it. Since 2016, he’s either toplined or been featured on 52 tracks on the Billboard Hot 100, and has graced the chart as a producer with at least 115 entries including two No. 1s (The Weeknd’s “Heartless” and Migos’ “Bad and Boujee” featuring Lil Uzi Vert). He’s worked with nearly every A-lister in hip-hop including Travis Scott, Kanye West and Drake, with plans, he says, to release a full-length album with Future. (They’re working on it, but no release date was given, of course: “Come on bro, you know I’m not going to tell you that.”)

His approach to production suggests he knows exactly what goes where, and the set was all the better for it. For the event, Metro, dressed in a plain tux and sporting sunglasses and white gloves, stood poised behind decks atop a towering podium that overlooked the orchestra. Beneath him, conductor Anthony Parnther and the Symphonic Orchestra filled out the tracks, marking Red Bull’s second U.S. installment of the series following Rick Ross’ inaugural 2022 performance. And, according to the crowd, it was a resounding success, playing as a tour of Metro’s vast oeuvre with classical music embellishments.

To begin, the orchestra took the stage with Parnther as its guide as a robotic voice introduced the evening. “Red Bull Symphonic is based on the unprecedented collaboration between a modern-style artist and a full-scale symphonic orchestra,” said the voice. “The duality of these two genres will blend in perfect harmony in a magnificent sonic journey. The concept of duality is rooted in the very essence of a hero, like a coin with two distinct faces. A hero navigates the world with a captivating complexity. At the core of this duality, a relentless battle rages between the noble hero and the lurking villain as he grapples with the choices that shape his destiny. Are you ready? Our journey is about to begin.”

The set included 30 songs, building as a crescendo throughout. It kicked off with Future’s “Wicked” off the rapper’s 2016 mixtape “Purple Reign,” and continued with a parade of familiars for the audience including Travis Scott and Young Thug’s “Sky Fall,” Future’s “Mask Off” and Big Sean’s “Bounce Back.” As the night continued, the hits became more familiar to the audience, and by the time “Bad and Boujee” and Metro’s “Spider-Verse” hit “Creepin’” with 21 and The Weeknd rolled out, attendees were jumping out of their seats — not exactly what one would expect at an orchestral show.

For the most part, Metro kept his emceeing to a minimum, consistently promising the audience that he’d keep going until the lights came on (even though, of course, he ended right on the dot). Seeing as Metro’s career has been entirely collaborative, he delivered on what was expected, bringing out some key guests. Singer Roisee came out for an A$AP Rocky-less rendition of “Am I Dreaming” off the “Spider-Verse” soundtrack, while Swae Lee and Nav graced the stage for “Calling — Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” One of the more fleshed-out appearances came from John Legend who, backed by a choir and a piano, sang the sample from West’s “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1” that Metro co-produced. “It’s a beautiful night,” exclaimed Legend. “It’s an honor to celebrate my brother tonight, Metro.”

The orchestra itself often felt like an accouterment to the blasting tracks through the sound system, but Metro and Parnther found exacting moments to let them shine. The horns crashing against the strings added a sense of suspense and emotive flourish to Chris Brown’s chorus from West’s “Waves,” while violins created a luring air of danger on 21 and Offset’s “Ric Flair Drip.” Witnessing how scrupulous the performance had been scored and designed was impressive. Clearly, Metro doesn’t do anything without a close eye, and the evening showed for it.

After a breathless hour-and-a-half, the Jay-Z sample from Metro’s “Superhero (Heroes & Villains)” signaled the end of the night: “Dark Knight feeling, die and be a hero / Or live long enough to see yourself become a villain,” he said, with Metro descending from his post and taking a bow with Parnther. To those words, he may be the villain, but no one seemed to care.

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