Hey, Remember Rap?

clipse-hhnf-cvr.jpgThe rennaissance, the rebirth, the avant-garde

CMJ's relationship with rap is a bit weird and testy. It's an indie-rock fest, of course, and all its ventures outside its bread and butter are usually pretty tokenistic. This year, we got Shooter Jennings for country, Relapse and Neurot showcases for metal, Justice for dance. And their rap picks, predictably enough, nodded more toward old-school vets (Freddie Foxxx at Midway, Prince Paul at BB King's) and chin-scratching crate-digger rap (the Stones Throw showcase at BB King's). Dead Prez did some kind of Afro-Punk thing one night, and Pharoahe Monch apparently did a set at the Canal Room, though I don't know anyone who saw that one since they didn't announce his set time. The biggest rap star to roll through CMJ was Lupe Fiasco, who didn't play a proper fest-affiliated event but instead did some weird private party on Wednesday night were everyone had to dress nice to get in.

So last night's Clipse show at the Knitting Factory somehow became one of CMJ's big flagship must-see shows, and I'm not sure if it was because of Clipse themselves or because it was everyone's only chance to see relevant, acclaimed, semi-popular rappers. Either way, the scene at the club last night, predictably enough, didn't have all that much to do with CMJ. My friends and I arrived before the main-room doors even opened, and as we were coming in, the door people were deciding not to let in anymore passes. This was more a chance for Clipse to repeat their now-legendary March show, the one where Malice and Pusha got to see firsthand how much a certain breed of New York rap dork loves them, where the whole crowd seemed to know all the words from mixtape tracks. So the show felt something like a reunion, like that time I went to see NOFX in tenth grade and every single person I knew was there.

For Clipse as well, the show was something of a homecoming. If their last Knitting Factory show convinced them that people still loved them, this was a chance for them to show other people how loved they were. Specifically, it was a chance for them to display their charisma to the Jive Records execs who have made a running joke out of the forever-changing release date of their sophomore album, Hell Hath No Fury, which is finally supposed to see daylight at the end of the month. "They're here," said Pusha, as they launched into "Wamp Wamp." "Show them." So we did, roaring their obscure punchlines back at them and chanting their crew's name unprompted. Content-wise, their show was almost no different from the last two New York shows I've seen from them. They opened with neglected old favorite "Virginia" and squeezed in both of the new singles, but they didn't give us any more of Hell. It didn't matter; there isn't a more focused and precise live rap group working, and they rose above the Knit's tinny soundsystem through sheer force of will. Until Sandman fucked it all up by coming out in all black, they had a visual coordination thing that may have been accidental: Pusha, Malice, and Ab-Liva all wore blindingly crisp huge white shirts, weirdly militaristic even though Liva's about a foot taller than either of the other two. And Pusha, I just noticed, makes the exact same facial expressions that LeBron James makes late in the fourth quarter when he's worried about blowing a lead: total defiance.

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I'd like to report that depressive Houston rapper and personal favorite Trae brought the same level of transcendence to his set, but his drizzly bitterness doesn't really translate to a sardine-packed club, and the Knit's speakers aren't built to handle the gut-rumbling low-ends of his beats. It didn't help that Trae brought the did the most boilerplate version of his show that I could imagine; it was almost like he doesn't quite realize what sets him apart as a singular voice. And so he rapped over the "It's Goin' Down" beat and asked us how many of us had a "nice motherfucking car," oblivious to the fact that this is New York and nobody drives. He told us that "I did this next motherfucking song with one of y'all's own, man, Jim Jones," which is something you should only say if you want a bunch of idiots to yell "Ballin'!" But Trae couldn't be just another rapper if he tried; his voice is too powerful and his stage presence too effortlessly authoritative, and he still brought a genuine goosebump moment when he did "Swang" and muttered HAWK's verse like he was channeling his voice from beyond the grave.

Another act that didn't quite translate was the awkwardly named duo Kidz in the Hall, the new figureheads of the recently relaunched Rawkus Records. I'm told their album has the same unforced warmth of, say, Rhymefest's Blue Collar, and the brother of the group's DJ half crashed on my floor in Baltimore once, so I'm pulling for them. But there wasn't much about their set that really stood out. It's hard to punch through the apathy when the entire crowd is there to get drunk and yell Clipse lyrics and your biggest crowd-pleasing trick is rapping over the "T.R.O.Y." instrumental. Maybe next time.

Hopefully there won't be a next time for Jokaman, who will probably always be best-known in my circles for this. Jokaman didn't tell any jokes, but he did ask what I know about Cristal and Hennessey (not much) and told us that the rap game is like the crack game, which is pretty funny I guess.

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