Wednesday, September 26, 2014
Better than: Thanksgiving at Erykah Badu’s house
For reasons I never bothered to ascertain, the Ohio neo-soul-hop duo Fly.Union never showed up, so Wednesday night’s show began around 8.30 p.m. with a set by the New Orleans-born, London-based, cosmos-oriented rapper Jay Electronica. In the interest of full disclosure I will say that I have held Jay Electronica in impossibly high, messiah-caliber esteem since about 2009; that he has done so little since then to validate or defy my expectations — his first LP has allegedly been done for more than three years, and your guess is as good as mine when we’ll hear it — is part of what I like about him. All the same, I was prepared to be disappointed, because if you can’t be bothered to drop your damn album by now, how likely is it that you can be bothered to put on a rewarding live show?
[jump] How thrilling it was to be so wrong. On record (that is, on the mixtape or two’s worth of songs he’s released or guested on in the last six years) Jay is nimble and inventive and ideally unpredictable, but also possessed of a sort of prophetic authority — like a heady mix between Ghostface Killah and Chuck D, with some 9/11-truther vibes thrown in to keep you on your toes. He seems to make inspired decisions — like setting his newish live spin on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It” to the beat of Biggie’s “Kick in the Door” — very casually, and every time he veers toward the mawkish he naturally corrects course with something impeccably left-field (see his unjustly ignored post-Kendrick verse on Big Sean’s “Control,” where he says “the eyelashes like umbrellas when it rains from the heart” and almost immediately thereafter calls himself “Jay Electricity / PBS Mysteries”).
I could go on for a long time — I have elsewhere — but in any case it would have been fair to expect him to be entertaining and personable and fascinating live, even participatory in a rootsy hip-hop kind of way — but he was the life of the fucking party. Four songs in he invited a few dozen fans to join him up on stage, where they stayed for the rest of his set, even after he got down and spent the last ten minutes rapping from the ballroom floor. He puffed on joints they offered him, stopped the show for about a minute to pose for selfies with anyone who wanted, let a gangly white kid rap in his stead for a while, and so on; when he rapped, though, he did it like it’s what he was made to do. Thrilled, Jay’s stagemates rapped along effusively the whole time, to his songs and a few golden-era classics, and here’s the thing: even on songs we all know and love, nobody could quite keep up. Even the kid with lyrics from “Exhibit C” printed on his T-shirt fell out of sync now and again.
Which, lest that sound critical, was perfect. Jay wasn’t a touring performer so much as a sensei, a living public service announcement, an unbelievably cool older cousin in town for just one night. As a lyricist he’s always built wonderfully original and sturdy structures that are great fun to play on and learn from, and he managed to convey that doubly in person. “Thank you, Frisco,” he said by way of conclusion. “I don’t take your time and energy for granted.” Then he asked for someone to lead him to the bar and buy him some Jack Daniels.
[page] Common came on at 9:30, or rather the lights went down at 9.30 and we listened to a recording of him reciting a tediously elementary poem about a man — in the third person and never named, though I’ve crunched some numbers and come to the conclusion that the man is none other than Common himself — who used to make music and then got a little bit estranged from it but finally realized that music was the best way to cement his legacy on the planet. Then lights up to reveal a small retinue of DJs and backup personnel, then a brief salutatory interlude, and finally Common, bounding smiling onto the stage with a fist raised in the air. At which point I was told that no press photography was allowed, so here’s what you get:
Look, I get that it’s hard to seem like a genuine populist when your opener spent the final third of his show standing in the crowd. But I find something slightly rotten in Common’s insistence that he does what he does for the people. It feels honest enough when he writes about cities as a unit of meaning — sure enough, a lot of his crowd-stirring invocations divvied us up by geography, e.g. “Vallejo, Richmond, San Francisco! Where my people?” — but at any level more intimate than that, it always feels to me like he’s insisting in a way that most people wouldn’t have to. For all he may grouse about being labeled a conscious rapper, he plays cards from that deck pretty consistently (from “Forever Begins,” his first number of the night: “I talk to my aunt named Mattie Lee and recognize the importance of family”). But when it comes to actual real live people, or when it came to them Wednesday night, there was little love or warmth to be found.
Take the degree to which he flogged his friendship with the late producer J Dilla throughout the set. At one point he played “Rewind That,” from this year’s Nobody’s Smiling, which includes a loving, introspective recollection of living with Dilla in Los Angeles before the latter died of lupus. But the other half of that song is a similar reminiscence about Common’s formative years and the debt he owes the Chicago producers No I.D. and Twilite Tone, and that half was missing on stage, replaced by a series of vignettes where Common chats with an invisible Dilla throughout the years. (Even Drake would know not to be that crass, right?) Or take, as a more immediate example, his failure to bring Jay Electronica out for the set-closing performance of “Kingdom,” also from Nobody’s Smiling, whose remix featuring Jay Electronica in typical verse-murdering form came out a few days prior. Or take the pretty gross segment where he brought up a young Nicaraguan lady named Sadie from Richmond — Common was very clear that we should know these things about her — and had her towel sweat off his bald head while he serenaded her with, among other things, a loping freestyle incorporating a lot of references to Bay Area landmarks and the sex appeal of Hispanic folk. After which he had someone escort her backstage, winking to us as she left: “that’s a good girl right there.” Then “bueno.”
Even if I didn’t take his motives to be a little distasteful, it still wouldn’t have been a great show. So much of it was canned, propped, unspontaneous, deeply image-conscious. (No press photos.) After the Sadie from Richmond incident, he began to monologize about romance — “you know, ladies, I ain’t afraid of love” — in a way that seemed sort of candid until it became clear he was just segueing into “I Used To Love H.E.R.,” a canny extended metaphor about a first love that turns out to be hip-hop itself. And just to make sure we got it, he offered to show us a picture of h.e.r., leaning down to a strategically placed crate and pulling out an LP of Paid In Full, and then an LP of Criminal Minded, and then an LP of The Chronic, and then he was just showing us records for a while. (At other times he availed himself of an easel and a series of blown-up photos for similar purposes.) I stepped out for air around this point, and came back to find him jumping around while his DJs spun classic ‘90s rap cuts, including “Jump Around.” At the end of the show he dismissed his band one by one, “celebrating” each member, then celebrating the sound and lights guys, then celebrating us, then celebrating November 26th. There was no acknowledgment that the following day was Thanksgiving, or that the previous day had witnessed a grim new episode in the endless outrage that is our country’s institutionalized contempt for black people. Just “November 25 — uh, 26th, we celebrate.” He had to think for a second, but he got the date right.
My point being that I think Common is a smart guy and a talented rapper when he bothers to be, but that he’s also arrogant and churlish and maybe a little misanthropic in a way that’s surprising only because of how thoroughly he brands himself as essence-permeatingly real. Maybe his career trajectory bears this out: “I Used To Love H.E.R.” was an artful indictment of hip-hop trends that didn’t involve him, which landed him in a beef that he didn’t settle so much as unequivocally win, after which everyone knew better than to fuck with him (except Drake, ironically). And maybe he embraced the conscious rap tag sincerely — it can be lonely as king of the mountain — but it certainly doesn’t feel like he’s kept embracing it for any other reason than it makes him rich and recognizable and able to parlay his stature into weird bullshit like making a clothing line with Microsoft (scroll down for “I Used To Love H.E.R. T-shirt in MS-DOS type) and becoming, per his bio, “the face, voice and inspiration behind some of the largest consumer brands in the country.”
And Common would be a lot more compelling if he just copped to being kind of a dickhead — when you think of him that way, his work gains dimensions it doesn’t have coming from a human perfume commercial. (Especially his weird flights of fancy, like “Real rappers is hard to find like a remote / control rap is outta”; definitely “get your hair right and get up on this conscious dick.”) But his presentation in 2014 is that of hip-hop as smooth, seamless sideshow, and it’s neither necessary nor particularly on point. He gives off the impression that hip-hop is only as worthwhile as his interest in it at any given moment, when he’s not making a movie or a TV show or a consumer brand, and his willingness to assimilate any other opinions seems more business-savvy than genuine.
Another way of putting which is that Common believes he is hip-hop. For a lot of people out there he’s probably not wrong, but the saving grace of Wednesday night’s show was how clear it was that there’s still a choice. Jay Electronica feels so pure and uncalculating and joyful in the way he inhabits and shares hip-hop that, for my money, it's a no-brainer. And who knows, it could turn out Jay’s just biding his time too, that all of his engaging weirdness is just part of an elaborate personal branding initiative that will one day blow Common’s out of the water. But that’s the risk you run with everyone these days, right? Might as well enjoy it for whatever you can get out of it now.
The whole Sadie from Richmond thing — can someone confirm for me that that actually happened?