El-P (center right)
El-P, Killer Mike, Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire, Despot
Sunday, July 1
El-P is it for many. The pinnacle of alternative, genre-pushing hip hop; the surfaced point of a boiling underground. He's a unique figure that traditionalist rap heads and backpack-clad indie-rap snobs can agree on, and if you've given his latest, next-level album, Cancer 4 Cure a spin, you'd know: he just keeps getting better. He also keeps adding top-shelf buzz artists to his gang of friends/collaborators, and luckily for us, he brought a few of them to town last night. The night was nearly a clinic in "rap done right," and, aside from a few missteps, was one of the best hip hop shows I've had the privilege of seeing in my storied concert-going career.Despot was El-P's first cohort to hit the stage. The Queens rapper put on an impressive display of between-song banter. He's a stand-up comedian as much as an MC, and delivered some cutting, spot-on satire of traditional rap performance with a comically straight face, including (but not limited to) some performer-crowd Simon-says (pictured below) in lieu of your run of the mill call-and-response. My prior knowledge of Despot was limited to features on Das Racist songs and an El-P joint, but his solo material kind of blew me away. He can project big time for a smallish dude, and spit some seriously sharp verses. He also played two songs from an album he's working on with Ratatat (I was surprised too) that sounded pretty fucking stellar. +1
Mr. Muthafuckin eXquire's set was as short and trashy as you might have imagined, and it was delightful. He sloshed around the stage in a fuzzy brown hunter's hat, thrusting, air cunnilinging, straddling the monitors, until he finally vanished into the crowd, only to re-emerge on the edge of the stage, rapping "I woke up this morning, feeling like that nigga" with a random female audience member semi-willingly tucked under his arm. He finished his set with a one-way crowd surf, and that was that. (Side note: I figured eXquire's hit "Huzzah!" would have been saved for a grand encore performance with El-P and Despot contributing their remix verses--and maybe even Killer Mike holding his assault rifle--but it was thrown in with the half-dozen or so other tracks in eXquire's set instead. It still worked out alright (and got a surprisingly good response as he rapped the song's final verse over "Smells Like Teen Spirit"--a risky move), but wasn't quite given the grand presentation I'd imagined.)
The crowd pushed toward the stage, and Killer Mike started up with "Untitled", which, for my money, is the best song on his new, entirely El-P-produced album, R.A.P. Music. It's an album that's packed more than any of his others with explicit political criticism, and heady, overtly personal verses. His hard-hitting lyrics have recently earned him a large amount of critical acclaim, and justly so. Unfortunately, they were also mostly to blame for a set that never carried any momentum for longer than a song. He kept signaling the DJ to cut out the instrumental so he could recite his verse a'capella, and even repeated a few of them just to make sure we didn't miss them. I know he's a very purposeful lyricist--and a very proud writer--but the breaks in the music really broke the flow, and people began milling around a bit. It was great to see Mike rap with passion (especially on tracks like "Reagan", which is an especially fiery rip on the former president/actor), but his set could have been sharper.
Somehow I didn't catch on until he ended his pre-encore set with "$ Vic", but I'm pretty sure El-P played all twelve Cancer 4 Cure songs in sequence before coming back out for a quick rehash of his older material, as well as to lay down a couple verses over Slick Rick and A Tribe Called Quest beats for good measure. It was extremely cool, and a completely different show than I saw the Brooklyn rap god give just over five years ago at the same venue. He shouted his lyrics through a mike laced with reverb, which might seem like a strange choice for an MC, but backed by a guitarist, a DJ/keyboardist, and a hype man, he had suddenly become the amped-up lead singer of a rap-fusion band, so it worked. Confronted by what looked like a rock band, the crowd acted accordingly, and went pretty nuts on the floor. The whole cast and crew wound up on stage at show's end, and although it wasn't to run through a big, well-placed crew cut, it did show that it pays to tour with your friends.