Live: The Emo-Rap Machine Rolls On

brotherali1.jpgBrother Ali, thinking about maybe doing some raps

The first time I saw Atmosphere was the first time they played New York. It was the summer of 2000, and I was living in the city for the summer and working at the Knitting Factory box office. The club was bouncing checks constantly at the time, and it's not like the job paid all that much in the first place, but working there meant I got to see whatever shows I wanted for free. So I got to see Luna tape their live album and Kristin Hersh premier half-finished songs from Sunny Border Blue, but that Atmosphere set was memorable one I saw all summer. They'd already released Overcast and the Lucy Ford EPs, but I don't think anyone in the club that night had even heard of them; I certainly hadn't. They were midwestern white kids opening for people with deep New York roots: MF Doom and J-Live and the Chuck D's unbelievably wack rap-metal band Konfrontation Kamp, so nobody really expected much from them. But they ended up being the best thing onstage that night by a ridiculous margin. Eyedea was playing hypeman a few nights before he'd win the Blaze battle. He was probably gearing up for that, so he and Slug bounced a bunch of shockingly fully-formed freestyles off each other, playfully half-battling with the sort of spontaneous joy that I almost never see from rappers onstage, all jokes and easy charisma. If Slug showed any indications that he'd eventually become an emo-rap titan, I didn't see them; stuff like that song about how he had a date with divinity but she wouldn't let him fuck just came off like standard-issue post-Rawkus conscious-rap gobbledygook. And so Atmosphere just seemed like a young rap group with a lot of hunger and potential.

Since that night, I've seen Atmosphere grow into an empire, and I've heard mainstream-rap vets like Alchemist openly ogle his tour money. Up until last year's depressingly blah You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having, Slug was churning out remarkably consistent albums and a furious pace. In Ant, he has one of the only producers in indie-rap who makes sparkling, catchy, hard-rolling tracks, things recognizable as rap instead of headache-inducing synth-apocalypse noise-bombs or lite-jazz piffle. And Slug is one of the only rappers in the quote-unquote underground with any sort of swagger or personality or believable sex-drive or beat-riding ability, all of which goes to show that he could've probably signed to Roc-A-Fella in 2003 and become an honest-to-god mainstream star without switching up his style too much. But he's permanently attached to his drunken-schlub persona, and that's probably for the best, since he's managed to invest it with huge levels of pathos and detail. And I like how he's named one song on each of the last two albums after hyperliterate late-90s indie rock bands ("Lifter Puller," "Smart Went Crazy"); hopefully "The Dismemberment Plan" will make the next album.

All that said, he's spent the past year moving away from rap. Late last year in an Urb cover story, he called white rap critics to task for letting people like the Diplomats get away with violent and misogynistic lyrical nihilism. A few months later, the Diplomats were on the cover of Urb. And it's worth noting how little his audience resembles a rap crowd these days. It's not just the overwhelming whiteness; virtually every rap show I've seen in New York has had a predominately white crowd. But last night, Irving Plaza was awash in pooka shells and popped Izod collars and flip-flops; from all physical evidence, he's in Dave Matthews territory these days. And appropriately enough, he's been touring with a live band for about a year now, and it tends to fill up the all-important empty spaces in the beats with fuzzy noodling. Slug didn't do much rapping last night, delivering his lyrics in a sort of cocky-ironic spoken-word singsong cadence instead. It was weird and dissonant seeing this guy do heavy confessional stuff for a group of rabid kids and coming dangerously close to self-consciously half-assing everything. The work ethic was there; he spun through those old songs with professional efficiency. But things only sparked when he got into his epic material, like the show-closing "Always Coming Back Home to You," one of the best-written songs that any genre has produced this decade. "Shrapnel" was another highlight, even if the band replaced its robotic skank with a weird Middle-Eastern metal arrangement. But stuff like "The Woman With the Tattooed Hands," a song that gets dumber every time I hear it, fell flat. And so the best moments of the show came in the first half. The band only came out forty-five minutes in, and Slug did the first half of the show like it was an actual rap show, with Ant as his DJ and Brother Ali as his hypeman. Slug was still on autopilot, but at least he was rapping. He came out rocking over the beat to "Young, Gifted and Black," which was pretty funny, and he later switched up "Like Today" with "Ladi Dadi," showing how closely his song followed Slick Rick's blueprint. But he still looked more detached than I've ever seen him. If he keeps up like this, he won't be worth paying attention to for long; emo-rap is just too easy to fuck up for anyone to get lazy.

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Case in point: abysmal openers Los Nativos, a duo who does guttural Mike Shinoda shout-rapping over fake West Coast funk and fake cumbia. The crowd ate up Los Nativos, cheering wildly for even the most bullshit lines ("We take our tradition serious / I'm teaching my children how to make origami pyramids"). So there's nothing at stake; a crowd who will cheer that group will keep coming back for anything, and Slug can keep deteriorating without ever facing economic consequences. If he does ever recover his vitality, it'll be because he wants to, not because his audience demands it.

And so the best act on the bill by a pretty considerable margin turned out to be Brother Ali, who spent forty-five minutes rapping loud and hard enough that he visibly sweated all the way through a black Dickies shirt, a feat I didn't realize was possible. Ali came out doing his version of "Mama Said Knock You Out," and I can't believe I never made the connection before; Ali raps with all the force and urgency of a hungry LL, even if he doesn't have LL's confidence or his ear for hooks. Ali has spent years touring hard and opening for Atmosphere, and it appears to be paying off. This was the first time I'd seen him in front of a crowd that knew him and loved him, and so he sounded validated, letting an infectious joy creep into his voice even when he was delivering his bleakest lines ("We don't have bar mitzvahs / We become men the first time our fathers hit us, and we don't open gifts up"). The a cappella song he did about his son rivaled "Forest Whitaker" as an anthem of vulnerability, and Ali seemed truly amped to have an audience receptive to both of those songs. He hasn't lost his smile yet. Slug could learn.

Voice review: Amy Phillips on Brother Ali's Shadows on the Sun

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