Summer ended suddenly on a Wednesday night in Tribecca when Kendrick Lamar, a self-appointed Dylan for 80s babies, took the stage at SOBs, one of the last venues Manhattan has left to a dedicated Hip Hop stage. And hip hop, in its strange 2011 iteration was in the building. As Meka from 2 Dope Boyz warmed the crowd up, here in order, was what got the best responses: Anything off MBDTF. The full room, on key singing along to “Runaway” was particularly surreal; all three big Waka Flocka singles from the past year, and “Dipset Anthem.” Also, in 15 years attending hip hop shows I’ve never seen less white people then were present here — just saying.
The opening acts were the ghosts of New York hip hop’s past and future. Peter Gunz introducing his nephew, whose name I instantly forgot, who also happens to rap. (The Gunz family is apparently the low budget version of Will and Jada’s clan). This kid wasted everyone’s time and patience with standard mixtape horseshit that the crowd was way too polite in receiving. I badly missed the old days when New York would boo garbage openers off stage.
What’s the clearest sign that 808s & Heartbreaks might’ve actually been bad for hip hop, was the Peter Gunz nephew — a generic New York mixtape rapper — who started singing over “Closer to My Dreams” and had an aside after the song ended about relationships and this girl who broke his heart. Then he pulled his friend and fellow aspiring MC Chris Whitey on stage, who spent way to much time “repping CT” (wish I was kidding) as they traded terrible verses over “6 foot 7”.
The quote from the article heading comes from the DJ who came out for mixtape veteran and generally worthless human being Trav, who wildly enough managed to pull Juelz Santana and Lloyd Banks on stage for some random track 50 must’ve paid out his ass to get Banks and Santana on. Then they did “Beamer Benz or Bentley.” The HIV Negative line was still the highlight of the set.
And at last, Kendrick Lamar. The sold out crowd was packed with die hards and all the DJ really needed was instrumentals, everyone knew the words to every song and rapped along loudly. As a performer, Kendrick has a Nate Robinson like quality, the little guy with explosive game. He was rocking a “I <3 NY” hoodie that looked straight off a hanger from a tourist trap on Canal Street, but that shirt was about the only sign of affection he showed all night. On an iPod, Section 80 has a stony, mellow quality — there’s something about the jazzy score and Kendrick’s love of musical hooks. In person, much of that melts away. Kendrick is pretty much the most serious young artist I’ve ever seen on stage — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The anger and sadness of the record was tangible and changed the way I will think about 80 henceforth.
These days it’s considered an afterthought to say a rapper can rap well. Being technically proficient is no longer even worth mentioning, but for fun let’s do it, because Kendrick Lamar is a fucking fantastic rapper. His breath control, as he pushed himself through treacherous stretches of fast rap is phenomenal, on a crowded stage in a sweatbox in August wearing a fucking hoodie. But what you had to love on Section 80 was that Kendrick didn’t rap stagnantly on beat in rhythm only because he’s great at it (Marshall Mathers should have been taking notes). But he kept us engaged by slowing it down, and dragging it out, and getting sloppy and crazy while still in control.
Finally, those verses. The very title of Lamar’s album implies a focus on Reaganomics and the generation that spawned him. Throughout Section 80, he used it as a nimble device — able to dabble in weed rap and B.O.B. inspired crossover dreck. The faux Bruno Mars hooks are the only actual beef I have with the album, though it’s an incredible credit to Lamar’s talent that I don’t hate the songs that feature them. He’s able to carry the terrible decision, but while stay never straying far from social, political commentary that he’s able to tie into all subjects and tangents.
And so with ¾ of the year over, Kendrick was on stage performing the best rap album 2011 has produced thus far. The young and engaged audience had their hands in the air, chanting “FUCK THAT” the top of their lungs. It’s partially the hook that grounded the thinking person’s jam of the summer. And at Kendrick Lamar’s urging, for a few final, fleeting moments, it was possible to imagine that age doesn’t exist.