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Sasha Frere-Jones: “Featuring?”
BB King Blues Club
January 30, 2006
The cramped apartments and exorbitant rents and people trying to hand you flyers all the time are hard to ignore, but New York is an amazing place. Every time I start to get used to the idea that I live here now, something comes along and just absolutely destroys me. Like this: in five days, I got to see Big Daddy Kane and Rakim, the two greatest rappers of hip-hop’s late-80s Golden Age. Different shows, different venues, different circumstances, and I shouldn’t even be comparing the two, but I just can’t resist.
When Kane and Rakim were running New York, there were constant rumors that they were always on the verge of going at each other, that one or the other had recorded a dis track that was never released. Rakim debuted in 1986, revolutionizing the medium with complicated internal rhymes and a deadpan game-face delivery and dizzying five-percent cosmology stuff that may or may not have made any sense. Kane came in a couple of years later, seizing on the already established loverman archetype and bringing a dazzlingly quick and precise delivery and an old-school entertainer flair, all gold and suits and slick dance moves. There’s an instant dichotomy between the two: the poet vs. the hustler, the scholar vs. the libertine. And it’s fun to imagine everyone in New York taking sides, waiting for the battle that never happened. Interestingly, though, Rakim and Kane have had strikingly similar career arcs since their peaks: both put out progressively less powerful work throughout the early 90s before disappearing completely, both were briefly attached to recent powerhouse labels (Rakim with Aftermath, Kane allegedly with Roc-A-Fella), and both are currently revered as old masters despite not having released an album in years. Judging by the two shows, both are still fierce performers, perfectly capable of delivering onstage. Of the two, I prefer Kane, simply because I’ll generally take speed and flash over languor and myth. And Kane’s set was stronger and more focused. Kane’s stage wasn’t crowded with hypemen or well-wishers, his mic worked perfectly throughout, and he didn’t have the advantage of an adoring crowd who knew every word of every song. Since he was opening for the incalculably inferior MF Doom, his was an uphill battle; he had to win over his audience rather than just accept their adulation. And his style is more suited to the stage than Rakim’s, more dependent on classic showmanship and conspicuous virtuosity than the casual mastery Rakim uses.
Which is only to say that Rakim’s live show was the second-best I’ve seen in a long time instead of the best. This was his first local show in a few years; he’d been arrested two years earlier just before walking onstage at a Ghostface album-release party, and he hadn’t done much of anything since. “2005 for me was a little fucked up,” he said, before asking the crowd to hold up lighters and cell phones for his mother, who’d recently died. A few minutes later, an elderly white guy who Rakim had introduced as an old friend led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday.” At the end of the set, the show’s organizers presented Rakim with a painting of him. The sheer goodwill that the crowd and promoters and venue showed Rakim was truly something to behold; he could’ve just come out and waved, and people probably would’ve gone home happy. The set was far from perfect; there were way too many dudes onstage, he didn’t need the hypeman who kept yelling over his stuff, and the depth of his back catalogue meant he didn’t end up performing a few of his best tracks. But there were still too many goosebump moments to count, like when he walked out to the floating bells of “My Melody” with a towel over his head or when Kid Capri, his DJ for the night, segued directly from “Paid in Full” into “Juice.” He promised an album this summer, and the one new song he played was pretty good, even with the nameless dude singing on the chorus. Rakim still has plenty of gas left in his tank, and it’s great to see him get his due.
Even better, he wasn’t the sole respite on a bill jammed with shitty rappers the way Kane was. The show was put together by the Lyricist Lounge dudes, who have been missing in action for a while but who know exactly how to set up a show like this one: keep the opening acts coming, limit them to a few songs apiece, invite all the rappers backstage out for a verse or two, and keep everything moving. When the guy onstage is nothing special, as with end-of-mixtape guy Ryan Perfect or Dead Prez’s M1 (out with R&B singers and doing put-in-work thug-motivation stuff for some reason), they’re gone from the stage before they have a chance to really bore anyone. When they’re good, they’re something of a revelation. The first guy onstage was the unbelievably horribly-named Al B. Back, who brought out Opera Steve, the guy who sings the histrionic backing vocals on “Killa Cam,” to help him do a spoken-word tribute to Big Pun, apparently a relative of his. There’s an inherent silliness in seeing someone scream out poetry-slam stuff while a suited, ponytailed guy wails out “Puuuun Puuun Puuuuuuun” next to him, but the tribute was eloquent and heartfelt enough to overcome that, and he followed it up with a vicious, hungry rap set. If he can think of a better name, Al B. Back might go places. And the parade of guest stars was impressive: Agallah and Killah Priest and Immortal Technique doing short but ferocious freestyles, Pete Rock coming out to a hero’s welcome to actually rap rather than just playing his old records, Grandmaster Caz and the Furious Five’s Rahiem doing the grown-man veteran thing. The previous week, Rahiem had looked out-of-place and embarrassed when Kane brought him out to back up the grotesquely muscular Melle Mel on “The Message.” Here, he and Caz looked rejuvenated, thrilled to be in front of an audience again, their voices rough and weathered but not dated, doing new songs rather than digging up their oldies. Rap moves quickly, but here’s hoping it still has room for guys like them.
Voice review: Miles Marshall Lewis on Rakim’s The Master