The opening moments of Jay-Z’s “I Declare War” show still make for the best onstage introduction I’ve ever seen a rapper do. The “Public Service Announcement” piano, the fake Oval Office, the forty-foot jets of flame: I can’t imagine another rapper ever pulling off a goosebump moment like that one. But here’s a close second: the lights at the Apollo Theatre dim, but the curtain stays down. The ominous strings and the sample of some guy from a movie talking about a prophecy from “King Back,” the epic first song from King, play over the speakers. The curtain goes up slowly, and we see T.I. standing still at the lip of the stage, standing with his head down and his hands clasped while a single spotlight shines down down on him and the royal horn fanfare kicks in. And then the beat booms in, and he suddenly surges out of his trance and rips through the song. And of course the crowd goes absolutely apeshit; how could you not?
It’s funny; I was looking at my old blog the other day, and two years ago I said that T.I. was stupid for trying to start shit with Lil Flip because Flip was “a better rapper.” Looking back, that’s one of the dumbest things I ever wrote. But I can’t be the only one who didn’t have it figured out. Two years ago, T.I. was just another Southern rapper with one OK album and one really good album, and he was always getting arrested and starting shit with other rappers, and it looked like he’d be disappearing before anyone realized what happened. Now, he’s a titan. Virtually everything on King is huge and monolithic and undeniable, and his verses sound like hooks, and his throwaway album deep-cuts are much better than other people’s singles. I was half-expecting an endless procession of guest-stars at the Apollo show, since Summer Jam is a couple of days away and everything, but there weren’t any; not even Jeezy materialized when T.I. did his verse from “Bang.” It didn’t matter at all. He also kind of rapped too loud, which made his drawl come out a bit nasal, but that didn’t matter either. These things might make a difference if you’ve got one song on the radio and you’re trying to make an impression. But T.I. is one of the biggest rappers in the world, right at his artistic and commercial peak; it’s not like he really had to work to keep everyone’s attention. T.I. has a rangy, animated presence onstage, running around more than any of his hypemen and grabbing outstretched hands like he was Rod Stewart or something. And he’s got a great live-show director in DJ Drama. Drama keeps everything going at a frantic clip, all hits and no dead space, just the first verse of every song. And so we got “King Back” and “Top Back” and “Motivation” and “ASAP” all in the first ten minutes of the show, and everything huge and spectacular. “Rubber Band Man” might still be his best song, and he only teased it; he has enough monster bangers that he can do something like that. He did two shows at the Apollo last night, and I caught the early one, so a pretty huge slice of the crowd ended up being high-school girls, absolutely bugging out for him on some Scream Tour shit. So the for-the-ladies mini-set ended up being an integral part of the show rather than a tossed-off pandering session, and a bunch of girls in the front row actually tried to pull his damn pants off. The serious moments hit hard too, the part where he said he’s the king of the South “because I motherfucking said so, dog” and the part where he had everyone hold up lighters and cell phones for Philiant Johnson before doing “Live in the Sky.” And after forty-five minutes, he was gone; it was all he needed. All East-vs.-South rubbernecking aside, I haven’t seen anyone wreck a stage with that kind of swagger and charisma since, um, Jay. So there you go.
Voice review: Keith Harris on T.I.’s Urban Legend
Yung Joc opened, which certainly wasn’t cause for celebration; he is, after all, a weak bubble-trap rapper with one hit and no real evident talent. But his set ended up being better than anyone could’ve reasonably expected, the best Yung Joc performance that could really happen without Tom Cruise running out for a repeat performance. He only has one song, but he had the good sense not to bore everyone silly with album tracks no one’s heard. Instead, he had his DJ play a bunch of slivers of popular songs (“Hustlin’,” “Snap Yo Fingers,” “Gettin’ Some”), which he knew the kids in the crowd would dumb out to. He did the thing where he raps a love song to a girl in the front row, except that the love song was all “I beat the pussy up like a old drum machine” and stuff like that. And he teased “It’s Goin’ Down” like five times before actually doing the song. And then, when he finally did it, he not only did the motorcycle dance from the video but also did the thing where he flaps his fingers on the “Chevy with the butterfly doors” part. And after about fifteen minutes, he was done, and you can’t really ask for much more than that.