The buildup to the God Rakim Allah’s performance at B.B. King’s was so fabulously alive with chest-beating and biblical portent that the real thing could have been underwhelming. Serving the Gotham underground’s finest ingredients— testosterone, community, nostalgia, and stage-hogging skillz—Killah Priest and Immortal Technique freestyled (IT: “I don’t put a hole in your dome/I go Israeli and put a hole in your home”), dead prez’s M1 punched with panache, Furious Fiver Raheem joined Cold Crush Brother Grandmaster Caz, and Kid Capri went up into the wheels’ ass-crack to grind out noises that would’ve scared the devil out of Shocklee and Stockhausen. By the time Ra hit so did everybody else who’d been in the wings. One longed to see that stage become as stark and dramatic as his rhymes, but the desire to bask in the glow cast by the God was too great for even Kool Herc.
This wasn’t maddening only because, like all icons, Rakim helps his people remember why they love themselves. And we not caught up in the Jay/50/Puffy matrix needed an occasion to feel good about New York hiphop even if that feeling owed more to BET-free memories than to innovation. With Capri keeping Ra on the clock even for the meta-epic “Follow the Leader,” all the classics got a clipped, rapid-fire airing. Ra ripped “Microphone Fiend,” “I Know You Got Soul,” “Know the Ledge,” and “Paid in Full” like a master carpenter, efficiently breaking down his wise, virile, relaxed technique. The logic and the brilliance of his formulations remained indisputable, the live element rendered them novel, and his freestyle bit was rock solid. But sound fundamentals don’t necessarily raise goosebumps. Rakim stills looks young and trim, but his swagger and gritty gravitas have taken on the burden of middle age—he spoke of losing his mother, and alluded to past actions (those gun charges?) he’s thought twice about. Refreshing maturity in a field where perp walk and photo op have become nauseatingly synonymous.
Vulnerability trumping hagiography—can this really be hiphop? The room wanted Moses or more (“ARE YOU READY FOR THE GODDDD???!!!!!”), but it got a flesh-and-blood Black fortysomething with other fish to fry. The grownass man on the mic now measures his life by how he alone, like all street vets, got to carry those war wounds off the field of battle rhymes.