Back in 2007, All Tomorrow’s Parties and the Pitchfork Music Festival decided that getting GZA, the Wu-Tang Clan’s resident rhyme scholar, to reenact his crime rhyme masterpiece Liquid Swords in full was a good idea. And it probably was—once, maybe twice. But the third time removed the charm. Yet since then, the notion of rappers being booked to perform albums in full has bloomed into an infernal trend.
The idea of having a classic hip-hop album be recreated in full in a live setting looks cool on a flyer and the show announcements will get people in comments sections talking, but the practice is problematic—in large part because most heralded records are guaranteed to have at least one bum note. If you witness Public Enemy storm through It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, do you really want the Beasties-lite of “Party For Your Right To Fight” to be the last noise you hear before leaving the venue? Or have Eric B & Rakim’s ham-fisted limp scratch botch “Chinese Arithmetic” sullying “Eric B. Is President”? Does anyone not skip past the annoyingly upbeat “Let’s Get Crazy” when running through The Great Adventures of Slick Rick? And good luck with any De La Soul project: De La Soul Is Dead is my favorite rap album on most days, but “Who Do You Worship?”, “Kicked Out The House,” “Johnny’s Dead AKA Vincent Mason”—those are all better subtitled “Skip.” (Although the idea of De La and cohorts performing the skits in a school hall is a ticklish one.)
And those are the holy hip-hop scriptures! Now we’re being told to muster up excitement over Lloyd Banks slurring his way through the not-as-classic-as-the-aforementioned-albums The Hunger For More. Black Moon helped define a proud era of muddy-sounding New York hip-hop in the early-’90s, but even Boot Camp Clik disciples will admit that parts of Enta Da Stage make for uneven listening. And while there’s always something of an unhinged allure to Dipset, watching Cam’s unruly soldiers bumble their way through the double album Diplomatic Immunity could more closely resemble shambolic rap improv.
Key to the promotion of these full album performances is the bandying around of plaudits like “classic” and “iconic”—the press release for the New York stop on the Red Bull Music Academy World Tour, which has been showcasing the aforementioned albums this week, invokes liberal use of both. But this only creates false nostalgia. Banks’ debut might have come out during that period when 50 Cent became the world’s biggest rap star, but that doesn’t meant The Hunger For More has the same significance as Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ (an album with its own flaws, but utterly redolent of a certain era in rap). It’s the same glossy-eyed myopia that plagues the legacies of many a dead MC.
It’s easy to see why some fans would like to position live performances of full rap albums as an antidote to Internet consumer culture. Playlists have made us finicky; streaming services have helped stoke musical attention deficient disorder. Off the back of this, the idea of the album—that cherished ten-track, two-sided, perfectly-formatted piece of music—has been worn away, ground down to a litter of single MP3s. But attempting to pretend that any rap album is worthy of sitting through in its entirety isn’t a remedy. Counter to summoning up a new found respect for certain projects, it’s more likely to push the genre towards accepting moribundity: The best music has already been made; Odd Future might as well retire now. (Actually…)
Most shockingly of all though, this whole heinous process encourages rappers to—shudder—use live bands. Which, unless you’ve got Jay-Z money to pay for decent musicians, often ends up sapping the snap and sizzle from an original song’s production. A large part of hip-hop’s history comes from the power of the 12-inch single—it’s the only genre where new songs come premiered over 40-minute spans that also contain explosions and Funk Flex’s yapping yelp—and most rappers would do well to view their live shows as showcases for the hits. Who wouldn’t prefer to hear a rapper guarantee to perform only their certified classics, rather than trying to pretend that an entire album deserves that status?