Harold Stallworth curbs your enthusiasm.
For all the technological advancements that have altered the ways in which musicians have earned their keep over the last three decades, one constant has remained: Rappers, by in large, still generate the bulk of their income via live performances. Over the last few years, Freddie Gibbs, Big Krit and Curren$y, have amassed cult followings at least in part due to their lauded stage shows. Legacy acts are similarly reliant on their fans’ willingness to feed the ticket box, if not more so, considering the depreciating nature of such a youth obsessed genre.
Last year, while most red-blooded Americans were still regaining consciousness from turkey-induced comas, hip-hop’s most renown narrator, Slick Rick Walters, was being greeted with boos and jeers during a halftime performance at the inaugural Knicks-Nets match-up hosted in Brooklyn’s newly christened Barclays Center. After a series of ill-mannered tweets from New York Daily News reporter Frank Isola calling Rick’s legendary status into question, fans and peers alike leaped to his defense from the comfort of their keyboards. But when footage emerged of a visibly impaired middle-aged man standing idle at center court, muttering lyrics with no regard for tempo over vocal-laden reference tracks, Isola’s slander seemed slightly less irresponsible. Before the close of the 3rd quarter, Slick Rick had already been recast as a drunken relic, incapable of delivering a competent live show. In the age of immediacy, a single high-profile flub broadcast by the social media bullhorn has the potential to unravel years of reputation and good will within a matter of seconds.
Last weekend, Slick Rick was provided an opportunity to make inroads toward redemption at Washington D.C.’s Howard Theater, the first visit on a three-city tour co-headlined by fellow rap icon Rakim. The overwhelmingly black crowd filled the modest-sized venue to nearly full-capacity. Rick arrived fashionably late. In his absence, the audience grew impatient as DJ Kaos unwittingly double-dipped into his bag of “real hip-hop” panderings, while a 4-man dance crew traded Kid ‘n Play kick-steps on the dense standing-room floor. When Rick finally slinked from behind the stage curtains, it was a wondrous sight to behold. Half-a-dozen platinum ropes dangled from his burdened neck. The massive bracelet shackled around his left arm was overshadowed by the world’s smallest satellite dish perched atop a gleaming wrist watch. In the steep tradition of British royalty, Rick’s wedge sole Wallabee Clarks were dyed neon purple to match the velvet eye-patch he would eventually don in place of his designer sunglasses. He absolutely looked the part of a hip-hop legend.
Wielding a custom-made diamond encrusted cordless microphone, Rick launched into “It’s a Boy,” the third and final single from his unheralded sophomore album, only to receive a lukewarm response from a fatigued audience. The initial uproar incited by his gaudy jewelry immediately subsided and never quite recouped at any point throughout the night. Between Rick’s unintelligible mumbles and DJ Kaos spinning insipid breakbeats in lieu of the customary instrumentals, some of the most classic and influential rap songs ever recorded were, remarkably, rendered unrecognizable. By the time the duo stumbled onto a successful mash-up by pairing “Teenage Love” with Jean Carne’s “Don’t Let Go to Your Head,” the ticket holders had already long surpassed their threshold for befuddlement.
Rick’s stage presence and demeanor was notably bizarre, as he refused to acknowledge the entire half of the theater on his blindside. Determined to facilitate as much literal distance between himself and his fans as humanly possible, he rarely stepped beyond the self-imposed 2-foot radius of confinement established from the outset, and perhaps for good reason. The few instances where he chose to go rogue were nearly disastrous. At one point, he threatened to relieve DJ Kaos on the turntables. As soon as he began climbing up the shallow platform, the music came to a screeching halt, prompting Rick to awkwardly sulk back down to the stage and resume his painstakingly drab performance. Not long afterwards, he clumsily staggered into Demont Peekasso, a local illustrator responsible for the artwork plastered over Raheem Devaughn’s debut album, and almost ruined his own retrospective portrait.
After capping the 45-minute set with “Children’s Story,” patrons extended the type of stringent applause the black community usually reserves for croak-voiced gospel hymning prepubescents. His departure was as anti-climatic a finish as could be imagined after such a blinding entrance. Unlike the Barclay’s Center last Thanksgiving, the crowd suppressed their disdain and allowed Slick Rick to exit the venue unscathed and unslandered. When it was all said and done, hip-hop’s most renown narrator proved to be a royal disappointment.