Thursday, June 21
Better than: Watching the final fourth quarter of the 2011-2012 NBA season.
For a crowd full of Thunder fans, Ab-Soul provided a much-needed distraction last night during his first New York headlining gig. In subtle contrast to the mighty LeBron James, Ab debuted alone, neglecting to bring along any of his more established Black Hippy companions (Jay Rock, Kendrick Lamar, Schoolboy Q). He played a riveting set, fully living up to the expectations of a hype crowd whose energy appeared unaffected by the stifling heat.
Game five of the NBA finals screened onstage between opening sets from Mike Jaggerr and Kris Kasanova (both of whom are better rappers than their clunky monikers suggest), and a surprise appearance from Brooklyn wunderkind Joey Badass, who appeared onstage with a multicultural crew of teenagers to perform cuts from his newest mixtape 1999. Joey, perhaps a fan of Heat-style basketball, was a little too comfortable sharing the spotlight, even retreating into the background for the last couple of songs as his posse gleefully commanded the stage. Though it’s understandable and even gracious to want to share a stage with your friends, it left the crowd a bit confused, and chants for Ab-Soul rebounded as soon as Joey and company cleared out.
Ab entered to the first song off of his recent album Control System, wearing a Jesus-fish shirt with his name in the middle, tortoiseshell sunglasses and an INDICA hat (he resembled some strange hybrid of Eazy E and Allen Ginsberg). This look is fitting, given the TDE crew member’s persona: he combines whipfire gangsterisms with poetic meditations on freedom, propaganda, and political doublespeak. Before he began to rap in earnest, he led an insistent chant of “Niggas Don’t Think,” presumably for the same general purpose that Shepard Fairey’s OBEY print was originally made ubiquitous.
Ab’s songs, despite the depth of their subject matter, are eminently chant-worthy, and he was able to hold sway over the crowd with relative ease, even while performing more downtempo cuts like “Bohemian Grove.” One of the most interesting things about Ab-Soul is the way he works serious topics into even the most innocent-seeming songs: “Grove” is ostensibly an empty song “for the ladies,” but a provocative chorus and lyrics like “no religion, I’m just so explicit, I coexist in places you would never no existed” provide contours that lesser artists might neglect.
Pumping his arms up and down like a madcap train conductor, Ab asked the crowd’s permission to “get into some revolutionary shit” which heralded the arrival of his most fully realized song. On “Terrorist Threats,” he reflects on “being a typical black boy in the good old USA” and quips that “before I pushed rhymes like weight, I used to want to play for the NBA,” neatly summing up the three stereotypical options of poor black people. These observations, though both funny and nuanced, arrive couched in an incredibly catchy, varied flow—an entire crowd will gleefully chant along with something as radical as “Dear Barack,I know you just a puppet but I’m giving you props,” as long as the first clause has some snap to it.
Near the end of his set, Ab-Soul, who was bullied as a kid for having dark, chapped lips as a result of Stevens-Johnson syndrome, had an audience member feel his mouth. It was simultaneously awkward, tender, and inspiring, as he calmly asked her, “Are they crusty? Are they ashy?” and she responded in the negative. He then ripped into his song “Black Lip Bastard,” the remix to which is a posse cut which features the entirety of the Black Hippy crew. But Ab, despite comparing himself to John Lennon, got by just fine without the help of his friends, showing New York rap fans a tough brand of skillful self-reliance that they vocally supported, even as the announcement of the Heat’s victory sent them dashing for the exits.
Critical bias: As there’s no possible way you inferred this, I’ll admit—I was rooting for the Thunder in the Finals. The crowd was surveyed, and the huge majority of them were also supporting the Thunder—the Heat received nearly all boos.
Overheard: “It’s hot as camel pussy up in here” was probably both the grossest and funniest complaint about the heat. There were no great quotable complaints about the Heat, just a lot of groans when LeBron made impossible shots.