Five things we learnt from Saudi Arabia's 2023 Soundstorm festival

Riyadh music event proves it can pull in big names and create a more dynamic line-up

The Soundstorm festival kick-started in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 2019 and has since gone from strength to strength. Photo: MDL Beast
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Soundstorm continues to break new ground. Since launching in Saudi Arabia's capital city Riyadh in 2019, the festival is now one of the biggest music events in the Middle East with more than 100 artists performing across seven stages over three days.

This year’s iteration, which concluded on Saturday, featured its fair share of milestones and pinch-me moments from fans as many artists marked their debut performances in the kingdom.

More encouragingly, Soundstorm’s line-up has become more dynamic with each year as it embraces genres rarely heard on concert stages in the Gulf.

Here are five things we learnt from this year’s event.

1. Heavy metal and reggaeton both rock in Riyadh

Luring the best artists from their respective genres to the region doesn’t seem to cut it for Soundstorm. This year’s festival evolved to include statement concerts that speak volumes about Saudi Arabia’s evolving music scene. Rarely do they come bigger and louder than Metallica.

The heavy-metal behemoths headlined the festival’s opening day on Thursday with a crushing and near-perfect set appeasing the faithful and casual fans.

With more than 50,000 watching the band slay the main Big Beast stage, the two-hour show is viewed as the first major heavy metal concert in the kingdom, and dispelled any remaining notion of the genre lacking a sufficient fan base in the Gulf.

The same can be said for J Balvin’s spirited showing on Saturday. With the exception of fellow Colombian artist Maluma’s arena concert in Dubai last year, reggaeton artists have been mostly limited to club shows in the UAE.

With a full production featuring a large band, dancers and giant Kombi van as a backdrop, Balvin played to a packed crowd who sang along to the hits Mi Gente and In da Getto.

Let’s hope concert organisers take note and realise our appreciation for the genre and Latin pop in general extends beyond Ricky Martin and Enrique Iglesias.

2. Will Smith needs to get back on the road

For fans of his work on the big screen, Will Smith’s energetic performance alongside DJ Jazzy Jeff would have been revelatory.

For older hip-hop heads, it was a reminder of the duo’s pedigree with Jeff’s underrated production and turntable skills, and Smith’s undeniable showmanship.

It’s just too bad these gigs are so rare that the influential duo, who under the name DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince received the first Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance in 1989, are viewed as hip-hop unicorns.

Whether Smith’s decision to perform in Riyadh is because he was already in the kingdom as a guest of the Red Sea International Film Festival or because he is in between jobs, doesn’t matter. His fun and pugnacious delivery was still intact as it hovered over Jeff’s rattling production and shuddering basslines of hits Brand New Funk and Miami.

With the crowd revelling in Smith’s Hollywood stardust, he should take this show on the road and remind the world there is more to his career than an unfortunate incident at the Oscars.

3. 50 Cent’s last world tour is the real deal

50 Cent’s reported last world tour is finally a worthy testament to his two-decade career.

Despite the rapper and burgeoning television mogul’s penchant for making hits, the live performances – often lacking flair and cohesive flow – rarely lived up to his stature.

Good news, then, for those attending his Abu Dhabi show at Etihad Arena on Thursday, 50 Cent’s Final Lap tour is the real deal. It’s an expensive production with a full live band, a dance crew and more costume changes than a Rihanna gig.

Most importantly, the songs are allowed to breathe with key tracks such as Many Men (Wish Death), Candy Shop and Ayo Technology given full airings.

50 Cent’s performance also forgoes the shouting lyrics of previous tours, to settle into the luxurious and even paced flow that’s similar to the recording. It all goes to show why this tour is the one fans need to see.

4. Arab pop stars are integral to the festival

Soundstorm’s Arabic pop performances at the Big Beast stage are becoming a beloved staple of the brand.

Supported by an international DJ, the near hour-long section functioned almost as a mixtape with this year’s artists such as Egypt’s Amr Diab and Lebanon’s Elissa performing EDM versions of the biggest hits.

MDL Beast Records confirmed to The National that many of these tracks, featuring remixes by the likes of Steve Aoki and Afrojack, will be released soon.

5. Soundstorm is growing with more eclectic acts

Last year’s move to expand the music offerings by launching a second major stage, dubbed Down Beast, continues to pay off.

The stage is a mini-festival in its own right and a worthy alternative for those seeking some relief from the blaring beats heard on the other six stages.

As well as Balvin, Down Beast hosted an eclectic array of acts ranging from cult hip-hop artist Pusha T and party crew Black Eyed Peas, to the evocative soul music of HER and Australian singer-songwriter Tash Sultana.

They were joined by talented Mena acts such as Saudi singer Fulana, Sudanese rapper Soulja and Egyptian band Cairokee.

Updated: December 17, 2023, 12:48 PM