A strip club crowd's a tough crowd. When the inked, mohawked “Malice” is prancing and preening like she's the lead in Mötley Crüe's “Girls, Girls, Girls” video; and the acrobatic “Jojo” is languidly folding herself into origami around the pole, how can a rapper compete?

He doesn't. If he's smart, he plays to the girls. Last night at Crazy Girls, there were lots of smart rappers in attendance–in theory, if not always in practice.

TiRon and Ayomari opened the show with a tightly edited, clever set that not only catered to the specific environment, but also showcased some of the best of the two's collaborations. Originally hailing from the Midwest, TiRon's sound and lyrics are reminiscent of one of its most (in)famous native sons, Kanye West. He kept the old soul production and honesty while losing the grating whininess, as evinced last night in the '70s game show theme-recalling, “Ms. Right,” and the Biz Markie-riffing “Sydney.”

Southern born-and-bred Ayomari's sound is trippier, slippery and more sensual. “I Wanna (Journey),” a lucid dream, and the liquid “Body Language” are custom-fitted “Jojo” numbers. Both rappers playfully engaged the dancers, TiRon wagging his tongue after one; Ayomari directing lyrics towards another.

87 Stick Up Kids, on the other hand, are fighters, not lovers. Both embodying the spirit and literally looking like direct descendants of the Beastie Boys, they worked the crowd into a fine frenzy while fairly ignoring the gyrating girls, save for perfunctorily stuffing a dollar or two into a bikini here and there. But their set was born to make the girls roll … and rock and bounce. Flinging themselves (and in the process, sweat) through a fast, furious, and very fun performance, they gave a nod to the venue, DJ Rockwell flipping strip club standards like Warrant's “Cherry Pie” and Prince's “Kiss.” Their original songs were chosen mindfully, and rowdily, too: “Lights, Camera …,” “Make that Bubble Bounce,” and “Shake It Like a White Girl.”

But this was Freddie Gibbs' show, as it seems most are these days.

Gangsta Gibbs and "Malice"- Fitting, Yes?; Credit: Deidre Crawford

Gangsta Gibbs and “Malice”- Fitting, Yes?; Credit: Deidre Crawford

It's been nearly a year since the mostly unknown Gary, Indiana, native landed on the cover of LA Weekly, and the almost mainstream rapper now barely alights anywhere for long; he'd just returned to L.A. in time for the Crazy Girls show. At this point, his story is well-read, and he's no longer the new struggler on the scene; with appearances both in The New Yorker and on the cover of XXL, it's hard to think of another rapper in recent memory whose name has been spread so widely.

The difference between his performance style in January and now is noticeable. While he still paces the stage, head mostly down–the girls got very little attention; only one Cirque du Soleil trick caught his eye–he smiles more often, and his increased confidence was evident in his pre-show speech. After (unsuccessfully, it bears mentioning–even for Freddie Gibbs, strip club crowds are tough crowds) attempting to quell loud audience conversations, he announced, “This is probably the only time this week you're gonna hear some real shit.” In other words, shut the f*ck up.

And they did, once Gibbs launched into his set, a gallop through a carefully considered list from his most recent EP, Str8 Killa, No Filla, as well as a couple of tracks from the mixtapes that first brought him national recognition, midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmuzik and The Miseducation of Freddie Gibbs. There are murmured mentions of Tupac, and true, Gibbs' assurance and lyrics, both literally and figuratively, reference him. But his flow and phrasing, in “P.S.A.,” for example, echo someone closer to home, Chicago's own Twista.

Then again, as he rapped in his encore, “Crushin' Feelin's,” “Rap ain't nothin' but talkin' shit; I'm just the best at it.” He beamed, charmingly, and bounded offstage, convinced. We'll let those Pac comparisons stand for now.

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