MF Doom: Worst Rapper Ever?

doom.jpg
Did he really make a live album? Really?

MF Doom + Big Daddy Kane + Little Brother + Pete Rock + some other guy
Nokia Theatre
January 26, 2006

I was too busy watching Ninja Turtles to ponder the question at the time, but it doesn't seem remotely possible that anyone in 1989 would've been able to envision a day when Big Daddy Kane would be opening for Zev Love X. Zev was half of an alternately goofy and political duo with vague Native Tongues affiliations, and Kane was one of the great lights of New York rap, a born star with vicious charisma and good looks and fierce dance moves and an effortlessly quick and dazzling flow. So last night's show was truly bizarre, something like what might happen if Cam'ron opened for Elzhi from Slum Village seventeen years from now. Kane and Zev, of course, have had wildly divergent careers since 89. Kane's fell off pretty quickly in the early 90s, as he damaged his reputation making a few too many love-raps and, crucially, appearing naked in Madonna's Sex book. Despite a few late-90s rumors that he'd be signing with Roc-A-Fella, he's been effectively retired for about ten years, only popping up every so often to wreck a stage like he did at the VH-1 Hip-Hop Honors. Zev, of course, disappeared after the death of his brother and partner Subroc and resurfaced a few years later wearing a metal mask, muttering fascinatingly free-associative non-sequitur rhymes, and crafting disorienting beats from chopped-up shards of quiet storm and hotel-lounge jazz, calling himself MF Doom. These days, he's just about the only thing in underground rap worth anyone's attention while Kane is an almost-forgotten veteran. Still, last night's show didn't make much sense.

For one thing, it was the Nokia Theatre's first-ever rap show, and the venue had all the problems that non-rap venues always have with rap shows: stressed-out bouncers, baffled soundmen, truly bizarre choices in between-acts piped-in music. (Red Hot Chili Peppers? Really?) But the show's greatest problem was the weirdly cobbled-together bill. MF Doom is not one tenth the performer that Big Daddy Kane is. He doesn't even belong on the same bill, let alone headlining. And so the show came off looking like a celebration of mediocrity, a case study in why New York backpack-rap is in steep decline.

Here's the thing: MF Doom is a great rapper, an enigmatic master of persona shifts and weird transitions; he turns traditional battle-rap into an exercise in sidelong expressionism and internal-rhyme virtuosity. But his music isn't even remotely suited for a live show. On record, his under-the-breath all-tangent flow is compellingly mysterious, especially when paired with swirling low-fi beats. It's headphones stuff. Onstage, he doesn't have the advantage of that mystery; he's just a chubby dude in a mask rapping too loud over muddy beats and yelling about get-money between songs while two unbelievably obnoxious hypemen refuse to shut up and an inept DJ fucks up and makes excuses ("That's what happens when you use real vinyl, y'all"). He managed to fill the 2000-capacity Nokia Theatre, possibly his biggest-ever local headlining show, and he treated it like he was just playing some hole in the wall, standing still onstage and saying his rhymes while lights twirled around behind him, no presence or charisma, his mask the only remotely theatrical part of the show. Inexplicably, he didn't do anything from last year's DangerDoom, even though that album's primary-color plastic throwback beats would've probably sounded pretty good on a big sound system. He showed an absolute unwillingness to work for his adulation, and the result was an inexcusably boring and lazy show.

Voice review:
Sherman Johnson on Madvillain's Madvillainy

The weirdest part was that Doom didn't see anything wrong with half-assing it even after a dazzlingly ferocious performance from Kane, still a star even if he hasn't released an album in years. Kane's show wasn't perfect. He didn't break out any of the absurdly great dance moves he showed on the VH-1 show. His bright-red leather pants were a dubious fashion decision. He ran out of breath a bit on "Warm It Up, Kane," though you probably would too if you tried to do that song while running through a crowd. But it's telling that the only slow part of Kane's set came when he surrendered the stage to the Furious Five's Melle Mel and Rahiem: old-school legends all, but Melle Mel is muscular to the point where it stops being cool and starts being gross. His arms are so huge that they don't even hang at his sides, and he seems barely able to move. When he took off his shirt, it was just uncomfortable, so it wasn't exactly heartbreaking to see them leave the stage after "The Message." Seriously, nasty. Kane did most of his classics ("Raw," "The Symphony," "Smooth Operator," "Ain't No Half-Steppin'"), but the most thrilling parts of his show weren't the nostalgia moments. An extended RIP-riff didn't start with Big Pun or Big L but with Barry White and Lou Rawls and, um, Chris Penn ("Y'all know you love Reservoir Dogs, don't front.") And his flawless fast-rap freestyle over "What's Your Fantasy" was just mind-boggling. Kane knows how to put on a show, and the other acts on the bill should've been taking notes.

Surprisingly, Little Brother didn't need that much help. The North Carolina trio has the overwhelming support of the Okayplayer crowd, fools who use the word "lyrical" like it actually means something and never, ever shut up about how bad rap is these days. The Minstrel Show, Little Brother's truly boring sophomore album, is one of 2005's most dishearteningly monochromatic records, a defiantly mediocre marathon of condescending anti-mainstream pandering and unearned arrogance. But onstage, they have drip none of the self-righteousness they have on record. They're into it, roaring out their lines and filling the stage with an overwhelming warmth; it was a nice surprise. Their punchlines are still disconcertingly weak ("Heart of a lion, eye of a tiger / 20-20 vision watching shit transpire"), but they know how to work a stage, which is infinitely more important. 9th Wonder is apparently too important to be their DJ these days, which is fine; it was fun seeing him come out on the first song, do the Dame Dash bottle-dance for a couple of minutes, and then disappear. Phonte and Big Pooh both do great fat-guy dances; they'd make good hypemen. Their set got old before it ended, but it went a long way toward showing why their following is as big as it is. And I think I heard them say something about doing a Gangsta Grillz mixtape before leaving the stage, so that's something.

Pete Rock was also on the bill, but it was hard to say why; he's a great producer, but he doesn't rap anymore, and he's not a particularly great DJ, so there wasn't much he could do. His set started out as a listening party; he'd talk about his new album and play a track, which doesn't exactly make for a riveting show. ("I got something with the Diplomats, my man Jim Jones." Crowd boos. "I know, I know. You gotta respect it because it's me, though!") After a little while, Jin wandered out, but he wasn't much help since he didn't have anyone to battle. Jin is still nothing more than a punchline rapper, and it's tough to envision him moving past that role. With no focus for his ire, he's totally lost; he ends up going on and on about fucking contracts and sales figures ("These days, if you don't sell platinum or gold, they say you a flop / I'd be happy to do 100,000 when I drop." Nobody cares, dude!). The funniest part was when he announced he was going to do a song big-upping producers, Pete Rock started to play a beat, and Jin said, "That's OK, I'm going to do it a cappella. But thanks!" Back to Fight Klub with this guy.

And still, the crowd ate him up, just like every other weak-ass rapper who stepped onstage last night. It was a far cry from the October Ghostface show at BB King's, where the crowd booed the awful backpack-rap openers Swollen Members off the stage. At this show, even the opening guy whose name I didn't catch got applause for his unbelievably terrible punchlines ("My father was a photographer; I was born focused"). It would be nice to see indie-rap return to its late-90s peak, but that isn't going to happen if crowds like the one last night keep encouraging the unacceptable. When underground rap gets a free pass just because it's underground, nobody wins. Nothing gets better.



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