A Light In The Void: Chance’s Social Experiment

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“We ain’t supposed to be doing this yet.”  Chance The Rapper laughs as he stands on stage between two massive speakers in front of a sold out crowd at the El Ray Theater in Los Angeles.  Two years out of High School, Chance is headlining his own national tour, complete with a live band and a light show.  He’s not supposed to be here yet, even Chance is baffled by his own success.  His meteoric rise would be disorienting for anyone.  Chance was virtually a nobody in 2013.  He didn’t come out of nowhere; his mixtape #10Day from last year garnered some press due to all the attention on Chicago and he opened for Childish Gambino’s tour back when people still knew Donald Glover from Community rather than his rap career.  But at the start of this year, Chance was still a random internet rapper who was riding the coattails of the new focus on Chi City.  And thanks to his rocket to success this year, Chance The Rapper gets the #hungryhippopotamus Rookie Of The Year award.

Chance first blew up earlier in the year thanks to an outstanding lead single and some key guest verses.  By the time Acid Rap finally arrived, the hype was so huge that Chicago hip hop website Fake Shore Drive crashed because so many people tried to download it.  It has become so popular that even though it’s a free mixtape, bootleggers have sold enough fake copies in record stores that it has actually ended up on the Billboard Charts.  Acid Rap immediately made an impact on the rap game even without any radio play.  Chance earned cosigns from superstar rappers and R&B crooners.  He graduated from opening for Mac Miller on the Space Migration Tour to palling around in Europe with Eminem, Kendrick, and Macklemore.  Now he’s just wrapped up his first headlining tour “The Social Experiment” to put a beautiful cap on an outstanding year.

When I saw Chance open on the Space Migration Tour, his age showed.  He was drowned out by his DJ, didn’t finish his songs, pandered to the crowd, and even closed by playing a Drake song.  It was disappointing to say the least.  But on the Social Experiment Tour, Chance has fixed nearly all of these mistakes and delivered one of the best live shows of the year.  The concert was a painstaking ode to his album, imbuing it with all the energy and thoughtfulness that made Acid Rap such a remarkable tape.  Rather than centralizing his set around himself, Chance has brought in collaborators to flesh out the startling range of his work.  Led by ex-Kid These Days trumpeter Nico Segal, his backing band careened from taut funk to psychedelic jams to wide eyed stadium rock.  “Everybody’s Somebody,” one of the hardest songs off Acid Rap was turned into a slow soulful exploration, with Nico noodling his trumpet as if it was an electric guitar.  Openers DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn, two footwork producers from Chicago, showcased their city’s sound and dance before the show and during the raucous finale.  Even the crowd got involved, chiming in a gospel hum that Chance recorded and then looped for his song with Lil Wayne, “You Song.”  He followed that with a completely heartfelt, unironic cover of Coldplay’s “Fix You,” with the lyrics shown on stage so everyone could sing along.  The different sounds and genres make Chance and Acid Rap a very millennial record, but the concert showed how instead of simplifying them down into one monogenre, Chance is layering his sound so it’s bursting with ideas.  In the year of the minimalistic void, Chance remains bright, shining with musical optimism.

The end of the year shows how far Chance has traveled.  He went into the studio with Justin Bieber and the two released a song that went to number one on iTunes.  He followed that up with his first nationally televised appearance on Arsenio Hall.  There’s no doubt about it.  Chance has the charisma and the talent, hopefully he can find a pathway to even greater success without sacrificing his own creativity and ambition.  In 2014, everyone is gonna start tripping.

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The Last Living Rock Star: The Yeezus Tour

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Lou Reed died this last October.  The founder of The Velvet Underground is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, challenging all musical conventions of pop music and basically created the alternative genre. We’re at an age where classic rock practically seems like antiquity, with more obituaries coming every year.  But Lou Reed’s death seemed particularly poignant.  Although I’ve never truly cared for him, his death sent me into a strange existential crisis.  Lou Reed was a rock star in every sense of the word.  He was rude and confrontational, enigmatic and charismatic.  He challenged gender and societal norms, rewrote the rock and pop songbook and redefined what it meant to be cool.  Rock stars don’t look like that anymore.  Rock stars don’t act like that anymore.  Yet a week after Reed’s death, I watched Kanye West climb a mountain, fight off a demon, get blessed by Jesus and proclaim himself a God.  Yeezus is a rock star and maybe the country’s last one.

Yeezus arrived with seismic impact.  2013 was the year of the high profile album, with every major rap and pop star dropping off their record in the most elaborate way possible.  But Yeezus remained distinct from the masses, an iconoclastic statement of power in an age where shocking means dancing at the VMAs.  More than any other album, rap or otherwise, Yeezus had the strongest impact upon first listen.  You can read about my reaction here. What struck me then was its “minimalistic” Rick Rubin infused production and sexual rage, combining on the centerpiece “Blood On The Leaves.”  Yeezus seemed like an album about his impending fatherhood, a last chance romp through his Freudian Id before returning to himself.  As incredible as it was, a lot of the album seemed designed for an immediate “wtf” factor rather than multiple listens.  The Yeezus Tour was an opportunity to see how well this work has aged and if it still holds as much merit as critics gave it when it first dropped.

You already know several things about the tour.  He brought out Jesus and there was a giant mountain on stage.  It was spectacle worthy of a man who calls himself a genius and the next Steve Jobs (or Walt Disney…or Andy Warhol).  The tour was half concert/half performance art, divided into five sections that allowed Kanye to take the audience on the journey that was Yeezus.  Fighting, Rising, Falling, Searching, Finding.  The show was focused on late-period Kanye, serving as a funereal procession for the old Ye.  So long to the the backpack wearing college dropout of yore.  Mr. West is now a volcanic controversial lightning rod, creating epic stadium mosaics that are meant to purge you rather than please you.  I was stunned by how well the sparse arrangements of Yeezus worked with the maximalist production of his recent work.  “On Sight” and “Send It Up” meshed perfectly with big hits like “Mercy” and “Power.”

Going into the concert, I wasn’t sure what the emphasis was going to be on Yeezus (other than the name).  While it was adored by critics, Yeezus was Ye’s least successful album.  But not only did he play every song on the album, the rest of his work was pulled into the same black whole.  “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” turned from underdog anthem to snarling resentment, “Runaway” changed from iconic apology to self-righteousness.  The recesses of pain from 808 & Heartbreaks laid bare next to the sexual howl of Yeezus.  

But the strangest, most in your face moment of the new Kanye, was when he stripped away his Daft Punk sampling stadium smash “Stronger” of all the anthemic value it has as a hit.  Suddenly “now that that don’t kill me, can only make me stronger” became an epitaph rather than a hook.  It came towards the end of the concert, after “Coldest Winter” had covered the mountain in snow and “Blood On The Leaves” created a volcanic eruption.  He had segued into what seemed to be an hour rant/monologue in the middle of “Runaway.”  And when he launched into “Stronger,” my favorite moment of the night might have been the crowd’s huge cheer at finally hearing a Top 40 friendly song and then that cheer slowly, awkwardly, dying as Kanye proceeded to ground that song into the dirt.  As soon as they like you, make them unlike you.  

For all the complaints about the mechanical kinks of the tour, I found no problem with it.  The scenes were majestic.  The mountain turned into an active volcano right when the TNGHT riff hit in “Blood On The Leaves,” which is the only possible way you could visualize such an astounding musical moment.  And after “Stronger,” the mountain split in twain to reveal Jesus.  Now Kanye wore a mask for the whole show, changing it every so often, and that bugged a lot of people.  Who knew his expressions were so important to his music?  How do we know it’s even him?  So when Jesus came out, ‘Ye took off his mask, revealed he was still human and ended the show with a sequence of hits: “Jesus Walks,” “Flashing Lights,” “All Of The Lights,” “Good Life,” and the Yeezus closer “Bound 2.”  Even though the ending was superb, the mask and the theatricality didn’t bug me.  The show was so unmistakably Kanye, from his vocal inflection, his impassioned screams, to his jerky dance moves.  It was impressive how he kept up the energy for such a long show.  He gave his all to every song and even bicycle kicked across the stage during “Cold.”  So the ending was a sweet catharsis from the anger and pain of the whole concert.  It re-contextualized his earlier work as idyllic and something to be earned rather than the starting point.  Hopefully it made everyone at that concert think a bit harder about Mr. West.

The Yeezus Tour proved a lot about the staying power of Kanye’s new album, but the meaning has changed a bit.  Kanye has blitzed through one of the most intriguing press runs on the 21st century, making bloated claims and always seeming on the verge of a meltdown.  But to me it seems like he’s broken through the matrix.  ‘Ye has been making some great points and his erratic nature has allowed people to marginalize all the political and racial statements that he’s made, things that people are afraid to say or even think in the Obama/Trayvon era.  When Lou Reed died, one of the things that was most mourned was his fuck off attitude.  Chuck Klosterman wrote “you were allowed to think whatever you wanted about who [Lou Reed] was as a person…but there was never any argument over the veracity of his genius.”  Sound familiar?  How does one man become a beloved rock star and the other an egocentric asshole?  Now, close to the end of the year, Yeezus feels like a gigantic middle finger at everyone who tries to put Kanye in a box, musically, socially, or culturally.  After the concert, someone I went to the show with said he liked Kanye’s earlier stuff more, that it was “real hip hop.”  Even though the show seemed to be an entire mission statement against thoughts like that, maybe he’s right.  Yeezy has changed the rules so many times that those definitions don’t even matter anymore.  But one thing is true, Kanye West is a rock star in a land filled with sweet pop stars.  And we should cherish that quality rather than tear it down.

 

The Space Migration Tour

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We left off last time with Mac Miller’s surprisingly good sophomore album Watching Movies With The Sound Off.  For those who didn’t read it, Mac moved to L.A., did drugs, made talented friends, and got way better.  The transformation is astonishing.  It’s as if Kreayshawn followed up her Gucci Gucci fame by talking about race relations with Lauryn Hill.  Now he’s on The Space Migration tour, with some talented friends opening up for him.  Now one of the main conceits of his album is about to be put to the test; will his audience accept his new persona?  As his performance proved, Mac Miller is a much more complex artist than any of his new or old fans would expect.

Looking out at the audience, I was figuring I had made a huge mistake.  Regardless of Mac’s new work, only had his old fans were there and I wasn’t ready for an outtake of a bad American Pie ripoff.  Luckily for me, the openers were more than enough balance.  The best of the lot was Action Bronson.  Bronsolino has been one of the hottest rappers for a minute, harkening back to old school New York sensibilities while injecting enough of his own personality to avoid being a complete parody.  His new project Saaab Stories is exactly what Bam Bam needed to rejuvenate his appeal.  After his critical breakthrough with last years Blue Chips, his shtick started to grow old.  Every verse seemed to rehash the same topics; high cuisine and 80’s sports references.  What was worse was his misogynist routine was becoming grating and outdated.  But Saaab Stories provided a change of tone, allowing for more introspection and stories while keeping the best parts of his old act.  The song all translated well in a live setting as well, surprising given the tinny laptop vibe Harry Fraud’s beats give off.  Action handled the frat crowd like a pro.  He rapped crisp and clear, letting the beat drop for his punchlines, and brought out pro wrestler Big Body Bes to talk some shit.  It was a reminder why he is one of the hottest rappers in the game.

      

The big draw on the ticket however, was Chance The Rapper.  A 20 year old from Chicago, Chance is almost too good to be true.  His album Acid Rap, released for free is indisputably the best album of the year so far.  It captures the heart of Chicago.  It mixes gospel and soul, brings together Twista and R. Kelly, and Chance goes right at Kanye’s legacy.  Acid Rap is the rap game Calvin & Hobbes, satirizing entrenched establishments, bringing childlike wonder to familiar tropes, and bleeding honesty and passion like he hasn’t been hardened by the world yet.   Hearing about his sold out shows in Chicago and given the anthemic nature of his material, my expectations were sky high.  I could not have been more disappointed.  Chance’s show was a classic “young rapper performance.”  His hype man shouted over every lyric.  He performed only snippets of his songs and had to break to engage the audience in a “DO YOU GUYS LIKE MY MUSIC,” shouting match.  By the end of the show it was as if he was just another normal teenager, begging the audience to turn up, bringing out Mac Miller just to dance, and ending the set by playing Drake!  Have some self respect damnit!  There were flashes of brilliance and I can’t wait to see him again on his own tour, but it was so sad watching his strengths on the album vanish.  His voice, one of the most distinctive in the game, was completely engulfed by the generic hypeman.  The length of the set made him cut some of the most concert worthy lines of his album (Lean all on the square….THAT’S A FUCKING RHOMBUS!!!!).  And while he danced great, and displayed an impressive singing voice, his emotional prayers and softer moments fell on deaf ears.

The crowd tolerated these two acts.  They did what they were told, but clearly they didn’t belong.  When they waved their hands in the air, it was as if they were petting a large dog.  But Mac Miller had a few tricks up his sleeve too.  His intro music was a NASA speech, with synths whirling while smoke filled the stage.  I suppose this was a wake up call for a lot of Easy Mac fans; Mr. Miller had gotten weird.  My neighbor in the Steelers jersey was not amused.  The first half of the concert was pretty de rigueur.  Loud music, turning up, call and response choruses, what I would expect his older stuff was.  But around the halfway mark, things got interesting.  He brought out a band to play some of his new material and at points played the guitar himself and got his Eddie Vedder on.  Psychedelic beats were turned into throwback jam sessions and Mac actually tore it up, riffing all the way and soloing BEHIND HIS HEAD.  At one point in a new song (I swear I couldn’t even make this up), he actually ventured off into an instrumental cover of Radiohead’s “Reckoner.”  I could feel the confusion emanating from the crowd.  During the encore, he proceeded to indulge his musical impulses, playing piano and singing “Youforia,” jumping on the drum set for a Keith Moon impersonation, and then cartwheeling all over the stage.  By the time he ended his show by transforming “Watching Movies” into a grunge look-a-like, the statement was made.  Mac Miller was growing up and even his fans are aware of that now.

Do Dope, Fuck Hope, Run Jewels

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I’m not going to say that rap has entered another golden age because that would be short-sighted, but the era of the internet looks as if it has finally reached up to its potential.  New talented artists crawl out of the blogs every week, barriers dividing regions have crumbled, and artistic and creative energies are flowing everywhere.  This can have negative effects.  Local rap scenes are dying out to national trends, and the ease with which verses can be spent has led to diluted songs and shallow partnerships.  But Run The Jewels, the duo of Killer Mike and El-P, shows how great this post-modern era of hip hop can be.  Two veterans from two very different rap traditions thriving off of a symbiotic relationship that simply would not exist just five years ago.  Killer Mike is an heir to the Dungeon Family, debuting on Outkast’s Stankonia and blazing through a unique career that has blended trap rap with political fury, drug dealing with gospel.  El-P might as well be from another planet, being a member of legendary underground New York label Rawkus Records and then founding Def Jux.  As a producer, he captured post 9/11 New York better than any musician on the planet.  It’s dense and apocalyptic, seething with paranoia, dread, and pain.  Both artists are anti-heroes in their own regions, throwing middle fingers up at anything and anyone.  And now they’ve teamed up to steal all your jewelry.

This collaboration is a couple years deep now.  El-P produced Killer Mike’s magnum opus R.A.P. Music from last year and the two have rapped together on that album’s “Butane (Champion’s Anthem)” and El-P’s “Tougher Colder Killer” from his very good album from last year Cancer 4 Cure.  With Run The Jewels, the eponymous (FREE!!!) album from the duo, the MC connection is furthered.  Run The Jewels is a great record in a way that’s markedly different from their previous offerings; it’s laid back and fun.  Stripped of the heavy political content of their solo works, the only theme driving this album is old school sensibilities.  The beats are more bare (but no less hard hitting) than El-P’s normal work and the rapping is all shit-talk. finding success in how these two rappers play off and one up the other.  When Jay-Z and Kanye teamed up for Watch The Throne, one of the highlights of the album was how they actually sounded like a duo and made the tape cohesive, and that was a partnership that was decades in the making!  El-P and Killer Mike have been working together for maybe a little under two years and they’ve found a chemistry that takes a lifetime to master.  They trade off short verses, know when to let the other take the reins, finish each others sentences, and simply love working together .  Their respect for each other is palpable throughout the record.  On “Banana Clipper,” Mike states “producer gave me a beat, said it’s the beat of the year.  I said El-P didn’t do it so get the fuck outta here!”  And El-P in numerous interviews and tweets has said that he considers Killer Mike to be the greatest rapper alive.  Now that’s a bit overboard but Mike goes it a little more credence on this record because he just goes OFF.  He’s always been a great rapper, but let loose on just old school subjects like braggadocio and shit-talk, it’s incredible to see him work.  “I feel my sanity slippin and I think I like the freedom, cannibal, animal, rappers I eat em! Even in Dubai I smoke like it’s legal, bitch so exotic she rode on a zebra”.  The same goes for El-P, who isn’t as impressive as Killer Mike but still does a great job, focusing his off kilter, sky-is-coming-down speed raps into hard hitting threats.  Run The Jewels is a brief thrill ride at just over a half hour, and leaves you wanting to put it on again as soon as it stops.

 

While Run The Jewels was a laid back exercise for the two veterans, there was nothing relaxed about their live shows.  For two sold out back to back shows at San Francisco, Killer Mike and El-P transformed a packed house into church.  The set went like this: Kool A.D. (1/2 of Das Racist) opened, and then Despot, El-P’s little sidekick friend, went next (and did a great job!  Apparently he has an album coming out all produced by Ratatat and it sounded great.  On my hannukah wish list).  Then Killer Mike and El-P each did a solo set before performing together.  They both know how to put on a show and the solo sets served to highlight their differences.  Killer Mike is a huge dude, and watching him hulk and huff through his catalog was astonishing.  He barks like an unhinged dog, seizing the moments when the beat drops to capture the entire crowd by himself.  I could have watched the whole show acapella.  In fact, he performed “Reagan” acapalla, rapping slow with the audience repeating his line.  It was the greatest history class I’ve ever been a part of him and it was hard not to get chills when he had the whole audience foaming at the mouth, screaming “FUCK RONALD REAGAN.”  Mike doesn’t shy away from these tricky areas.  He reminded everyone about Oscar Grant, a sensitive issue only about a week after the George Zimmerman verdict, before launching into “Burn.”  Mike has that ability to remind everyone of the cathartic power that rap specifically has.  When he sat down and preached in the form of “God In The Building,” it was soul-baring.  I don’t know of many rappers or artists who can do that.

El-P looks a little goofy compared to Mike. but still put on a great show.  His backing band, a keyboardist and a guitarist, transformed his swirling dystopian soundscapes into rock anthems and I swore a mosh pit was going to break out.  As cerebral as underground rap can feel, there’s a real size to El-P’s music, capable of handling synth noodlings and guitar solos.  After his set was finished and he came back with Killer Mike, wearing large gold chains, I was amazed at how they were both still standing, dancing to the beat, high-fiving on cue, and giving it their all.   But like Mike said, “I was thinking about taking it easy tonight, because the show last night went really late and I’m tired.  And then my grandma’s voice popped in my head and said….Boy are you crazy!?!?”  If only every performer had Killer Mike’s grandma.

Crowning A Queen: The Mrs. Carter Show

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Beyonce Knowles-Carter is a superstar in an era where that kind of thing doesn’t exist anymore.  In the wild world of the internet, pop stars with longevity are unheard of.  You are as popular as your last single, as long as your last viral video.  Yet Beyonce comes from the pop boom of the 90’s and has managed to cement her legacy with early incredible singles, and then protect it with incredible media savvy.  Her only peer in this regard is Justin Timberlake, who also arose out of the boy band craze of the 90’s to turn into an adult superstar.  But where Justin seemed to rely on marketing gimmicks and production connections to sell his latest album, Beyonce only needs herself.  When she performed at the Superbowl last year, it was an event.  Facebook blew up.  You remember, you were there.  It was the first time it seemed like the halftime show was bigger than the game.  The power went out so the players didn’t have to follow her act.  That show marked her ascendance to the Queendom of Pop; I remember thinking afterwards that this must have been what it was like to see Michael Jackson in the 80’s.  Someone so huge, so universally beloved, yet with the talent and chops to back it up.  Her tour that she announced that same day as the Superbowl is the biggest most extravagant victory lap ever taken.  Bow down.

What pushed her into legend status was her album 4released two years ago and what she’s still touring under.  4 is an incredible achievement, an album in a landscape where there are nothing but singles.  When Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Katy Perry, and the rest of the girls on the charts were chasing that EDM money and trying to out-weird each other, Bey brought R&B back.  She focused more on songwriting than hooks, on emotion rather than catchphrases.  She connected herself to the lineage of soul singers she was brought up on and yet added enough quirk to pave the way for the PBR&B successes of guys like Frank Ocean and Miguel.  JT’s new The 40/40 Experience tried to have the same effect as 4, but his spaced-out prog-pop can’t match the restrained power that Beyonce put in her work. And the album captures what’s so special about Beyonce.  Sexy without being slutty.  Strong without being scary.  Happily married but still independent.  Stanky but so fresh and so clean.

Her tour captures all that and more.  I wasn’t prepared for the level of showmanship and spectacle that I witnessed.  There were three different parts to the show: singer-songwriter, pop star, rock star.  She was either singing by herself with minimal accompaniment, singing while dancing with all backup dancers and light show according her, or singing backed by a full (awesome) band, complete with horns and the girls whose guitar shot sparks at the Superbowl.  There were breathtaking moments.  After pulling off the lounge singer act of playing “1+1” on top of a piano, she flew across the stadium on a wire.  She walked through fire during “Naughty Girl” (which I probably enjoyed way more than any of the girls there).  But my favorite moments were with the band, who beefed up all her songs with stabs from the horn section, pushing her pop into stadium conquering music without sacrificing any of the joy of the original material.  “Freakum Dress” was transformed into a hard rock freakout and “I Care” was punctuated by psychedelic guitar solos.  Every great artist needs to have a great live show and great live shows require some tweaking to the material.  She pulled all her songs into places I had no idea could go.  She mashed up The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” with “If I Were A Boy,”  segwayed into the classic “Shout” on “Single Ladies,” channeled the funk breaks of James Brown on “Why Don’t You Love Me” and, my personal favorite, played “Diva” on top of the beat for G.O.O.D. Music’s “Clique” and turned the song into a chugging BANGER.  There aren’t many people who could pull that off.

Above all, Beyonce was an incredible performer who can command an audience of that size.  There’s not really anything I’ve seen that can match it.  Let’s be real about the demographics of the concert; it was about 70% girls, 30% gay guys, 9% boyfriends/fathers, and then me.  But seeing the concert, you get why she has such a rabid fanbase.  She’s absolutely charming as she passed the mic around the audience to sing “TO THE LEFT TO THE LEFT” or “BRING THE BEAT IN” on “Irreplaceable” and “Love On Top.”  She genuinely enjoys performing for her fans and there were plenty moments of back and forth repartee between her and the crowd.  And then she can switch into thug mode, strut around with a swagger that gangsta rappers wish they had, and stare down the crowd until the cheering has reached an appropriate level.  Seeing a concert where everyone there loves the artist and the music is one of the most satisfying things in the genre.  Whether it’s a stadium full of fans or a tiny pub with only diehards, being able to share that experience with someone who cares just as much as you is one of the reasons we invest so much into music in the first place.  When Beyonce opened up her last song of the night, a medley of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” which turned into “Halo,” the only comparison I have is watching Bruce Springsteen turn an entire arena into church as he mourned the loss of his band members.

She has a new album coming out and details are scarce.  She only played one of her new songs, “Grown Woman,” which she’s debuted in her commercials.  Her music seems to reflect the confidence and a (hopefully hip hop) swag that comes with a victory lap of this magnitude.  Either way, I’m excited.  It’s not often you get to watch a pop star in her prime.  The old queen is dead, long live the queen.