Mos Def Is Boring

breedlove.jpgWhy are Mos Def and Talib Kweli all covered in dirt?

Mos Def + Talib Kweli + Pharoahe Monch + Jean Grae BB King Blues Club December 13, 2005

Looking back, the whole thing was a mess: rap reimagined as half-articulated boho worldview rather than, like, a way to have fun, Mos Def scolding rappers for jacking beats two songs after jacking an old Boogie Down Productions beat. But in 1998 and 1999, Rawkus Records and the scene surrounding it were a shining beacon of light for college freshmen in love with rap music but uneasy with all the money-and-bitches stuff. It was a nice idea, a big-tent scene with room for Eminem and Buckshot and De La Soul, a raps-and-beats meritocracy making a cultural impact when barely-rapping CEOs like Puffy and Master P sold more records than anyone. And maybe, just maybe, these guys even sort of won, now that Kanye West has taken that classicist aesthetic supernova and Jay-Z shouted out Kweli and Common on The Black Album. But when Rawkus's former flagship guys are either stuck in label limbo or making Italian Job sequels, it's hard to find much to celebrate. And so the horribly-named Playstation-sponsored Breed Love Odyssey tour looks less like a triumphant return and more like an exercise in the worst kind of nostalgia: the kind that doesn't realize it's nostalgia. Not helping matters: the fact that maybe 30% of the crowd was made up of doofy white butterball guys with bad facial hair who yell out song titles and keep their faces frozen in awesome-party grimaces. These guys, who all look like Turtle from Entourage, show up at every New York rap show, but they were particularly thick on the ground last night, and it's hard to enjoy anything when you're surrounded by these clowns. We're just going to call them Turtles from now on, OK? Turtles.

I missed all but one song of opener Jean Grae, and I wish I hadn't. Grae hasn't made a great album yet, but that's only because she's been working with flat, joyless production. But she's one of the most gifted and charismatic rappers with no major-label deal, a sharp and incisive no-nonsense rattlesnake just as comfortable with unflinching introspection as she is with stab-your-face battle-rap. And she was a constant and welcome presence onstage all night: cheering on friends, briefly reviving dying sets with quick cameos, dancing with Mos Def (and she can dance). In a perfect world, she'd be shelling out orders to the jokers on the bill rather than depending on them for an opening spot.

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Voice review: Jason King on Jean Grae's This Week

From a purely technical standpoint, Pharoahe Monch is a dazzlingly gifted rapper, a guy capable of spitting dense tangles of perfectly-enunciated syllables, wrapping his voice around beats without losing them. He recreates that flow live, never running out of breath or killing his lines by yelling them. But Monch just stands there like a lump onstage, looking surly when a crowd doesn't remember his years-old album tracks. His punchlines are perfunctory at best ("make you feel the clips like Pharrell"), his obligatory love-rap is truly sad, and his "every president's a Mason" pseudo-politics just aren't going to cut it post-Katrina. Even worse were his two wince-worthy backup singers, who gave his show a cheeseball Vegas-entertainer sheen that it absolutely did not need. "Simon Says" still killed, but the rest of the set just took up space.

Voice review: Kem Poston on Pharoahe Monch's Internal Affairs

Talib Kweli, a guy I've never much liked, has a better idea of how to put together a live show that plays to his strengths: starting off with his fastest, hardest stuff, dumping all the boringly sincere organic-soul jams in the middle, finishing up with the tracks everyone knows (the ones that Kanye produced). Kweli's voice actually sounds better after a solid month of touring; hoarseness kept him from sounding like such a little kid, and he comes closer to rapping on-beat than he almost ever does on record. Kweli's new album is much better than a Talib Kweli odds-and-ends collection on Koch has any right to be, and that combined with newfound ease onstage makes me think that I might actually start to like this guy in the next couple of years. But he still jams way to many syllables into every bar, he still has no charisma to speak of, and I still have no idea why guys like DJ Quik and David Banner keep putting him on albums. And it might not be a good idea for him to be bringing Ras Kass onstage; even a half-assed Ras freestyle is going to be enough to erase Kweli's entire set from memory.

Voice review: Irin Carmon on Talib Kweli's The Beautiful Struggle

And then there was Mos Def. For most of the tour, Mos has been dropping off the lineup and jumping back on again; maybe he couldn't handle the prospect of performing to crowds full of Turtles for a month straight. But the crowds who didn't get to see Mos actually turned out to be the lucky ones. Mos Def is now basically rap's Mars Volta, a once-great artist who's fallen so hard into expand-your-mind hokum that he's completely forgotten how to make anything immediate. During the brief Black Star mini-set between Kweli and Mos's solo sets, Mos looked momentarily amped to be back rapping onstage again. But before Kweli even left the stage, Mos was fucking up some of their best songs by subbing in half-assed reggae toasting for actual rapping. For the rest of the show, Mos did more singing than rapping and more mumbling than either. The show deteriorated into a sad joke pretty quickly; no one wants to hear him sing long-ass reggae songs, but he either doesn't realize that or doesn't care, and he's perfectly willing to stop "Ms. Fat Booty" right in the middle to sing the entire Gregory Isaacs song he once just quoted. Good ideas (freestyling about Hurricane Katrina over "Nolia Clap") were squandered when he inaudibly muttered his words. Once upon a time, Mos was the only rapper alive who could do a half-convincing song about why rap is bad now, in part because he could rap it so good. Now he's the guy who invites a spoken-word chump onstage to tap a drum and do some Nuyorican Poets bullshit about, like, life. A reanimated Mos Def would be a welcome contrast with the trap-house talk running mainstream rap, but he's not going to help anyone if he stays stuck in this half-baked self-indulgence mode. Even the Turtles mostly left early. Voice review: Jason King on Mos Def's The New Danger

Voice feature: Ta-Nehisi Coates on the fall of Rawkus Records

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