The Music Box
August 19, 2011
Better than: Previous passings of the West Coast torch to Knoc'turnal, Hittman, RBX and Guerrilla Black.
In 2009, people made a huge deal about Jay-Z attending a Grizzly Bear show with Beyonce and then saying afterwards, to paraphrase, that hip-hop could stand to learn a lot from indie rock, particularly in regards to how live shows are monetized and used as a means of solidifying one's fanbase. I will say the following entirely without commentary: two years later, Kendrick Lamar is fresh off his imposing Section:80 mixtape and charging $30 a ticket for a show at the Music Box despite never having released an album you can actually buy in stores. And for the most part selling it out. Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, this very weekend Solange continues her sad pursuit of hipster cred by playing mini-festival shows with the motherfucking Juan McLean.
Though during "The Spiteful Chant," Lamar angrily mocked those who think his association with Dr. Dre (rumored to be in the upstairs seating area) is a sign he "made it," he acknowledged that this occasion really is proof of his arrival to a certain kind of mainstream consciousness. As a companion who goes to far lesser-profile hip-hop shows on the regular pointed out, the crowd was not only less than 100% dudes, but filled with girls dressed like they were "looking to get chose."
Schoolboy Q, a Compton rapper and associate of the Black Hippy crew that also includes
J. Rocc, Absel Jay Rock, Ab-Soul (thanks to commenter ashlitodd) and Lamar, performed a spirited but erratic "opening set" - let it be known that there's the requisite five or so "feature acts" that generally do the most thankless job in live performance, i.e., get on stage so the DJ can't play songs people might actually want to dance to.
The burly former West LA footballer - appearing like a better-groomed Freeway from a distance - ably led the crowd through cuts from Setbacks, his latest album on Top Dawg Entertainment, which entered the Billboard Charts at #100 this year. He came off like a good foil to Lamar, more of the streetwise straight man to the former's spacier persona. However, the set got derailed when he asked two girls to come up on stage during "Fantasy." One of the girls sung along with every word, but unfortunately, she wasn't the one dancing with Q - eventually, Q lost interest, the girls started dancing with each other, and the interactive portion of the evening ended. Failing to plan means planning to fail when it comes to this kind of thing.
Likewise, it was every bit as pro forma and awkward when he told the crowd to put their weed in the air, forgetting that the Music Box is a venue where you have to sneak a pack of chewing gum in your underwear lining if you don't want it to be confiscated. A few minutes later, the set came to an abrupt halt; I should memorialize this night as perhaps the first hip-hop show in history where there was a vague sense that the promoters and venue heads were actually watching the clock.
It turned out to be all for naught, really - nearly an hour passed and it was easy to tell that the crowd was getting restless. Or, to put it another way, when the DJ spun "Grove St. Party" before Schoolboy Q came out, the front row was going nuts - two hours later, "No Hands" barely registered.
After a few minutes of silence, an altered Tupac interview (whose prescient abilities suggested a fucking awesome mixtape named Section:80 would drop in 2011) introduces Lamar to applause that really does feel more like true catharsis than relief. I'm placed right next to the smoke machine (not Snoop, he'd arrive later), so maybe my vision was a little off, but from a distance, you'd have sworn he was halfway through a slick Bobby Brown ca. '88 Halloween costume - blazer, boots, pomade'd haircut and a smile that made his shot to the crowd - "who wants to party with me after the show?" - feel like an offer that was really on the table despite it ending around 2 am.
Truth is, I thoroughly believe Section:80 is a record that actually comes off better live - though sounding a bit too loopy and repetitive for their own good on record, the foul-mouthed hooks of "Tammy's Song" and "The Spiteful Chant" are clearly meant for crowd interaction. And, oh yeah, it's obvious he can flat out rap his ass off, but his ability to actually control and guide an hour-long performance is beyond his years. At one point, he reenacted his mom and dad doing each other's parts to school him to the music that would "save his fuckin' life" - dad would play Makaveli, mom, "Ain't No Fun." He then also took real-time requests on Twitter, but I think that shit was rigged.
It would've been more than enough had Lamar just ran through a spate of Compton State of Mind and Section:80 selections, but something bigger was clearly afoot here (and no, I'm not referring to the impending Big Sean cameo). After the Pavlovian call of "California Love," rocking a T-shirt that contains some sort of non-descript anti-hipster message, the first thing you immediately noticed about The Game when he came on stage was that, oh right, he used to be a D-1 basketball player (Washington State, but still...that kinda counts) and he's fucking huge. Or at least compared to Lamar, who's he got something like a half a foot on.
Game forwent the usual psychodrama and label threats to spit a "freestyle off the dome" that was clearly written months prior, and generally act simultaneously goofy and vaguely menacing. The big brother act was actually pretty endearing, especially since Game gives you the impression he feels personally invested in Lamar blowing up nationwide. To say that Lamar murders him on his own shit during R.E.D. Album's "The City" is besides the point - it's premeditated murder.
More surprising was Mos Def kicking it backstage for no real reason other than his own amusement, and yes, being cooler than you could possibly ever imagine. No, he'd prefer it if you didn't take his picture - "I've already been flick'd up too many times tonight, feel me?"
And then the bum's rush of West Coast legends and honestly, the collection of talent on stage was more exciting to me than tomorrow's Rock The Bells: Snoop! Kurupt! That might be Warren G...and that's probably not Too $hort. But you get the picture. They run through one song together and Snoop mostly does an awesome dance and makes sure as many people as possible get a picture of him blazing a joint, which is probably the most any of us could hope for anyway.
Then, pretty much 85% of all the L.A. rappers you're currently aware of huddle up and make sure we all recognize the gravity of this moment (gotta do some fact-checking, see if they pull this same stuff in like, Houston) (Ed's note: They do.) Game pronounces the West Coast "passing of the torch" to Lamar in his usually lumpen but endearing way - the lineage apparently went something like Dre to Snoop, and then to Game, and then 2Pac died, and well...make sure you buy The R.E.D. Album.
Critical bias: Not only was it one of the best hip-hop shows I've seen in years, but everyone got a mastered copy of Detox with proof of purchase. Dre goes totally witch house on it, but it's also kinda drone metal at points too. And that one track with Lady Of Rage and Merrill Garbus?!!?? Man, you gotta hear this thing.
Overheard: "Ay yo, you gotta see '30 Minutes Or Less, those n**** dumber than a motherfucker, my n****. Dude talking about how he learned to eat pussy and cut his own hair on YouTube." "Fuck is taking him so long, son? I could've just sat up there and eaten a fuckin' Snickers bar!"
Set list below.
"Fuck Your Ethnicity"
"California Love" (with The Game)
"P & P"
"She Needs Me"
"Bitch I Do This"
"Ain't No Fun"
"Tammy's Song (Her Evils)"
"The Spiteful Chant"
"Ronald Reagan Era"
"Cut You Off"
"Blow My High (Members Only)"
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Medley with Snoop Dogg, The Game, Kurupt, et al.