Thursday, August 16
Better than: The Beanie Sigel show I attempted to see in 2006, purportedly with a “live funk band,” that was canceled due to something referred to as “a dental emergency.”
Nobody who came to Beanie Sigel’s show last night at S.O.B.’s seemed to be expecting good things. In fact the bigger the Beanie fan, the lower the expectations, the more miserable the countenance. “I’m worried,” said the girl next to me, who told me she had lived in Philly during Roc-A-Fella’s heyday, and that she had the same birthday as Beanie. “He’s a mess.” The guy next to me, who demanded I quote the chorus of “What Ya Life Like” before he would engage with me directly, had a look on his face like the show had already somehow failed. “These fuckers here have no idea who they are here to see,” he said, pained. “They’re here to see Beanie Sigel.”
There was a distinct feeling of misplaced loyalty to the trouble-plagued Philly rapper, who in the last few years has managed to cut all ties to Jay-Z in a pitifully one-sided, self-annihilating “feud.” He now finds himself headed back to prison for 24 months just as his first new studio album since 2007’s The Solution is about to come out. That album, heartbreakingly titled This Time, is coming out on the reconstituted Ruffhouse Records. It was recorded in a matter of weeks, just before he reported for his sentence. There was a lot of fond, wistful chatter to be overheard about favorite Beanie verses and old Roc-A-Fella freestyles. Heems was there, as was Despot. Lil Fame was in the audience. The mood was somewhere between a funeral for someone who hadn’t died yet and a wedding for a disturbed cousin everyone was pretty sure was going to melt down spectacularly at the altar.
When Beanie took the stage—around 11:30pm, after a couple of unsigned rappers got to do their slightly awkward thing, and after the quietly excellent Brownsville rapper Ka performed a short set for a small crowd that knew every word of his muttered Raekwon riddles—those doubters immediately, and happily, were made to feel like assholes. Beanie looked, and sounded, like the best version of himself. He took the stage to “Do It Again” and tore through a set that was heavy on nostalgic Roc-A-Fella classics: “Reservoir Dogs,” “What We Do,” “This Can’t Be Life,” “Flipside.” If there was any awkwardness in the setlist because of the Jay-Z verses on every song, Beanie wasn’t showing it. He took the stage with a bleary Jay-Z quote: “I’m everywhere, you ain’t never there.”
His solo material, however, got the most heartfelt reaction. “How many people out there bought my first album?” he asked warily. “Then y’all should know this one.” His DJ dropped the instrumental to “The Truth,” and the vibe in the room went from affectionate to fanatical. This is the material—the unvarnished, brimstone growl—that draws people to see an otherwise washed-up rapper perform a midnight set weeks before reporting to prison. He tore through “What Ya Life Like,” still one of the most harrowing songs about prison ever recorded. “We gon’ get dark in this bitch,” Beanie commanded before the song began. They got dark, and stayed that way.
Halfway through the show, Beanie signaled to his DJ to drop the music. He rapped a capella—stunning, bone-crackingly fierce verse from his upcoming record. His writing has not lost a step. He rapped his verse from Raekwon’s “Have Mercy.” He just kept going, with nothing but cheers and “whoos” to keep him going. He rolled out verses from “One Shot One Kill,” from “I Don’t Do Much.” At a certain point, the DJ just took his headphones off, watching. His faithful could have listened to him spit verses from a record they hadn’t heard all night. I could have. It grew poignant: obviously, Beanie never wanted to leave. His looming sentence came up only once, as he desperately plugged his album: “I’m gonna do this 24 months standing on my head,” he said. “You need to cop my new album. There is so much real shit on it. You need it in your life.” Someone in the audience, eager to make him feel better, screamed out, “We will!” Finally, reluctantly, he lumbered offstage.
Critical bias: For a long time—five or six years, easy—I would tell people who asked who my favorite rapper was “Beanie Sigel.” He was never the most versatile, certainly not the most important. But my personal favorite.
Random notebook dump: The saddest moment of the show was when Beanie paid tribute to Meek Mill. “Who here fuck with Meek Mill?” he asked. He then dropped “I’m A Boss” and rapped along. In an earlier era, Meek might have been here, receiving some sort of passed torch. But tonight, he might as well have been six thousand miles away.