Live: Ghostface Rallies the New York Rap Troops

fishscale.jpgI'm still not tired of this image

Ghostface Killah + Slick Rick + Papoose + DJ Premier + M1 Nokia Theatre April 22, 2005

Halfway through the best rap show I've seen since coming to New York, maybe the best rap show I've ever seen, Ghostface yelled for the light guy to "put the blue light on" before the DJ put on some dusty old 70s slow-jam and Ghost closed his eyes and swayed, wistful awe in his voice, talking about how his parents used to fuck to this music, how he was raised on this music, how he still loved this music more than rap. Then he launched into "Holla," the gorgeously weepy track from 2004's The Pretty Toney Album where he raps over an old Delfonics song, vocals and all. That was last October at BB King's, and what I didn't realize then was that Ghost had been doing the whole "put the blue light on" riff at shows for more than a year. He'd done it at Roseland during the Pretty Toney record release party, and he kept going back to it after that. But at BB King's, it sounded like he'd just thought of it, like that was exactly what he needed to tell us right then. When he did it again Saturday night at the Nokia Theatre, it felt like a riff, a familiar and dependable stunt he could use every show, right around the midway point, right when it was time to let the energy level dip for a few minutes before bringing it back up again at the end. It was still fun to watch him talking about "I'm like a 70-year-old nigga in a little body" and "one day I'm gonna have the whole fucking audience nothing but bitches, and they gonna scream for me like this." But it was a bit, just like the part of every Jay-Z show where he plays the first couple of lines of a Biggie verse and then lets the audience rap it back to him. An effective theatrical trick, nothing more.

Ghostface has been on tour for about two months now, and now he's selling out the Nokia Theatre, a club a little bigger and a lot less intimate that BB King's. His new album isn't going to go diamond or anything, but it's selling better than I thought it would and getting great reviews everywhere. And he's been on his grind, bringing dense, tight-wound New York rap shit to Boise and Tempe and South Burlington. His show is well-rehearsed and professional and crowd-pleasing, a lot more dependent on Supreme Clientele than it is on Fishscale because he knows what his audience wants to hear. And he's a great performer, huge and wiry and animated, with a voice strong and loud and melodic enough to cut right through his army of hypemen and hit every line with force and precision. But his set last night didn't have the same tense, volatile energy at the October show. Cappadonna, who seemed about ready to punch some random audience person in the face all through that last show, was nowhere to be found. In fact, no other Wu-Tang members took the stage at all on Saturday night, odd considering that GZA had reportedly opened an unannounced show for Ghost earlier that day at Columbia University. Last night's show only threatened to get out of control at the very end, when Ghost invited virtually every woman in the audience onstage and then serenaded them with an a cappella rendition of his misogyny-anthem "Wildflower," a weird and queasy moment that became a little easier to handle when some of them women rapped the lyrics along with Ghost. Naturally, an onstage old-school disco dance-party followed immediately.

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Predictability is relative, and a just-OK Ghostface show is a whole lot better than just about any other rapper's best. I'll still do my best to see him whenever he comes around. But a Ghostface show is a lot more powerful when you're not entirely certain you'll make it out alive. Last night, he was just great entertainment.

Voice review: Elizabeth Mendez Berry on Ghostface's The Pretty Toney Album

So was Slick Rick, who came out before Ghost and did maybe twenty minutes: "La Di Da Di," "Mona Lisa," "Children's Story," "Hey Young World," a song or two from that 1999 post-prison comeback album that no one bought, and that was it. He did pretty much the exact same set when I saw him in 1999, and he'll be able to keep doing it until the day he dies, though he might want to consider ditching those comeback songs for "The Show." He's a joy to watch, busting out goofy old-school dance routines unselfconsciously and rocking about a thousand pounds of gold chains around his neck. He came out onstage with Ghost a couple of times, but he always looked sort of sheepish and fragile, standing off to the stage with his hands in his pockets. When Ghost put his arm over Rick during "Run," it seemed like an oddly protective gesture. It was nice.

Rick followed Papoose, and it made for a telling contrast; Rick warm and vulnerable and conversational where Papoose is cold and hard and dictatorial. Pap came out doing "Alphabetical Slaughter," the song where every word of every line starts with the same letter ("Alert assassins at large allegedly automatic artillery automatically aimed," etc.), and it's an impressive technical feat, although I kept imagining his mic being totally soaked after he got done with the P part. On paper, many of Pap's lines can be haunting and evocative, and he can be good when he's just doing snarly battle-rap. But he loves doing awkwardly extended concept-songs (like how each of the five boroughs is like one of his fingers; you know that one), and that stuff gets old fast. He's got a hectoring, nasal voice, and more often than not, he barely acknowledges the beat. When he raps over "Let Me Love You" and tries to get all seductive, he sounds ridiculous. His two hypemen, both of whom are about a foot taller than him, rapped every line along with him, and the effect was furiously unpleasant. People keep mentioning this guy as the great future hope of New York rap, but I'm not seeing it; there's more to being a star than coming off hard, no matter how well-written your lyrics are.

M1 of Dead Prez isn't a star either, but he's getting better as a performer. He's still inexplicably bringing out two R&B singers, a truly bizarre and counterintuitive move even if he uses them better than Pharoahe Monch does. I never got much out of Dead Prez's stogy, humorless militarism, at least when it wasn't paired with a track as urgent and volcanic as "It's Bigger Than Hip-Hop." But M1 seems to be actively trying to get his shit played on the radio now, and there's an interesting tension between his black nationalism and the warmer, gooier sound he's been using lately; it was funny when he mentioned how you might hear one song on the radio and some dude in the audience started yelling "Fuck the radio!" and "Turn the radio off!" It's hard to imagine M1 blowing up off this stuff, but he does sound a whole lot less wooden and more human when he stops lecturing and starts reflecting. And he's not telling me to eat healthy anymore, so that's good.

Even if there weren't any stunning or memorable performances on Saturday night, though, it was still one of the better rap shows I've seen lately. There wasn't any dead time between acts; everyone came out and only grumbled a little bit when it was time to give up the stage to the next guy, a display of professionalism you don't often see at New York rap shows. And this was totally, completely a New York rap show, a rally-the-troops night. DJ Premier does that better than just about anyone. Non-rapping producers don't often make good performers, and Premier didn't do anything other than play records and talk loudly, but he's one of the greatest producers in rap history, and I can think of lot of worse things to do with an hour than listen to him play his old records. Premier also brought out the night's only surprise guest, Jeru the Damaja. Jeru might've looked a bit haggard, and maybe his leather pants weren't the best choice, but the audience still absolutely went apeshit for him, and he was visibly thrilled to do "Come Clean" in front of a bigger audience than he's probably had in years. It was a weirdly heartwarming moment; New York rap may not mean much in the larger scheme of things, but there's still one little corner of the world where Ghostface is a major star and "Come Clean" is an anthem.

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