Rick Ross, with Soulja Boy, Monica, and Ron Ron
Sunday, February 27, 2011
Better than: This shitty weather, English food, and 50 Cent
I never know what to expect from a live hip-hop show. Of course, like with any live show, you want a unique experience that can't be translated in the thousands of smeary cell-phone videos that show up on YouTube. Ideally, you'll come away from a performance with something that can't be found on an album -- or, in Rick Ross' case, only a Greenscreen photo booth that places you with the artists in question in a photo. (Seriously. I could have had Ross' visage cheaply Photoshopped with a picture of me for only $25!)
Hip-hop, arguably, already has a handicap in this stance: the use of prerecorded material, sometimes complete with vocal tracks, which can limit the uniqueness of the live event. Of course, the same is true with any established rock band with well-worn material. In theory, it shouldn't matter. If it sounds good (and if it feels good, if it looks good and if you get something from it), then it has some value. That means that much of the show's merit rests on the personality of the performer. If there's a muffled, overblown sound system, or an unenthused artist waiting until the next track click to move on, it can make for a unique experience for all the wrong reasons.
And so I tried to approach last night's roster of hip-hop talent (and Monica?) with an open mind and fresh ears. Despite the inevitable cropping up of a few of the issues I mentioned above, nuggets of performances stood out.
First things first: Soulja Boy. A chart-topping young-'un whose commercial cachet is dwindling, Soulja looked every bit ridiculous -- but not in a good way -- as any one of his fun-toting music videos would suggest. Both of my friends, who accompanied me, and I thought it was weird that this super-successful artist was pushed to the bottom of the bill as the first opener, in front of local artist Ron Ron. (Indicative of something? Maybe, maybe not.) Soulja gave what's best described as a modest performance, giving hits like "Superman" "Crank That" and "Pretty Boy Swag" the occasional zesty twist.
But midway through his abbreviated set, during one his walks across the stage, Soulja looked directly toward my seating area, and I saw nothing but forced, fake energy in his body and a tired, desperate look in his face. He looked like a tired circus creature, parading through his cage, looking for attention. This was also demonstrated in his flat vocals and awkward motions to commence his famous dance.
Ron Ron and his crew, representing KC's local hip-hop scene, gave fiery performances that were only bogged down by technical issues and lyrics misremembered (unless that was part of a skit). But Ron attacked the set hard and fast with an aggressive energy that wasn't there in the previous performer. Ron Ron even brought a surprise guest, frequent collaborator and Top City hip-hop standout Stik Figa, for a few songs. The local boys' performance had a scruffy and ramshackle feel, which matched their hard-hitting style.
Like the rest of the performers, Ross' set felt especially abbreviated, and this was further heightened by how much time Ross let his collaborators take the stage, presumably filling in the verses on his tracks rapped by others. (I say presumably because from where I was sitting, it was hard to make out actual intelligible voices amid the scuzzy sound system).
When he was on the stage, Ross was positively commanding, not only for his eye-catching image (big beard, big body, sunglasses) but also for his famous booming, baritone voice. Hits like "Hustlin'" were throttled out his body with vigor -- even if, as with Soulja Boy, there was an element of rote duty to his performance.
Between songs, Ross tried to wax philosophical to the Kansas City audience, offering advice about following your dreams and not believing your naysayers, which was wrapped up in his thug musings: "When it comes to setting life goals, set the bar super-high." (During his short advice sessions, he certainly tried to pimp a back story of a hard street life into a successful music career, even though that's not entirely true for the man behind the glasses.)
There's certainly something skeezy about the way Ross ascended into hip-hop stardom when he tried to hide his past as a corrections officer. While street cred matters to some, for pop-rap artists like Ross', what really matters is the fiction they're selling, the characters they're creating, and the imaginary worlds they're populating.
Sometimes, the strains of these fictions show. While Ross was energetic enough to rile up the crowd, there wasn't as much risk-taking as I'd hoped, like I'd seen from Ron Ron and his crew. Ultimately I think what I expected was recklessness -- an unhinged interpretation of songs played to death on the radio and at parties. Or a sense that, even though these were fictions, bound and codified, there was something more to them. Instead, the top bill gave a predictable, absolutely mediocre performance.
Overheard in the Crowd:
"YOU ARE NOT A STAR."
"This ain't St. Louis. THIS IS KANSAS CITY, MOTHERFUCKA!!!" Indeed.
Random Notebook Dump: "Damn. I never realized how tiny and thin Soulja is. Dude is a pool cue."