Homeboy Sandman + Friends - Gramercy Theater - 1/18/14
The New York rap renaissance, such as it is, has been widely placed on the shoulders of young crews like Harlem's A$AP and Brooklyn's Pro Era crew. But four performances Saturday night at the Gramercy Theatre showed how deep New York's new rap wave truly is, in a showcase for three talented New York rappers (and one visitor from Los Angeles) carving fan bases for themselves largely outside of the online hype machine.
Allison Egdahl Homeboy Sandman at the Gramercy Theatre
Homeboy Sandman, YC the Cynic, I Am Many, and Open Mike Eagle put on a lyrical marathon of a show, an oft-entertaining, sometimes exhausting relay of verbal acumen that lasted nearly four hours. The show attracted an eclectic, receptive, five-boroughs crowd, who were forgiving of any offense the performers deigned to committ, from opener Tone Tank's Elaine-Benes-style dancing to a nearly half hour delay before Sandman's set. Tank, who has a collaboration with Portishead's Geoff Barrow to his name, only played for about 15 minutes, and though his energy outpaced his lung capacity, he had a charisma that won the audience over in the early going.
But Tank's after-school raps were quickly forgotten in the wake of the four performers who followed. After spending much of the last decade being derided as revivalist, there are signs that a facility with language is again becoming an essential talent in rap music: young stars like Chance the Rapper, Childish Gambino and Kendrick Lamar have embraced the rubric of technical skill. Chance in particular makes a kind of acid-addled smart-guy aleck that would be familiar to fans of second act Open Mike Eagle. On tracks like "Thirsty Ego Raps," "The Processional," "Mef's Lament" and "Password," the 33-year-old Angeleno dive-bombed from pop ephemera to political depth, discussing topics as diverse as Kathy Lee and Hoda and Obama's Friday speech on the N.S.A.. Mike's got an unfortunate fondness for emo hooks (all the more irritating when he's excellent with a catchy rap chorus) but he was the most pop-savvy rapper who performed on Saturday, and the one most likely to make a Danny-Brown-style leap this year.
The next performer, who has saddled himself with the unfortunate name of I Am Many, exemplified both the strengths and weaknesses of the neo-conscious rap movement. Many hails from Bay Ridge, a bulky rapper with a ratatat flow. He's a disciple of Homeboy Sandman's in that he shows live rapping to be something of an athletic endeavor and on Saturday rapped double-time over concrete-heavy boom-bap, with concept songs about selling one's soul to the devil, the word "boxes," and posers. Many had great energy and is an excellent technical rapper--the crowd loved him. But he was also the first of last night's performers to resurrect the spectre of "real hip-hop" (roughly analogous to Sarah Palin's notion of "real America"), that conservative belief that late 90's hyper-lyrical rapping is the only way for rappers to show that they truly love the genre. It was surprising to hear the sentiment from a guy sharing a bill with Open Mike Eagle, but then again, Many is one of the few rappers who still thinks its worthwhile to take potshots at television for warping peoples' minds. It'd be foolish to peg him as some kind of insular real-rap performer, out of touch with the modern world--his lyrics were politically aware and empathetic, and it was touching the way he appreciated the love he got from the crowd. It's just frustrating to see that the sanctimonious attitude that sank the popularity of conscious rap the first time around still has its adherents.