El-P and Killer Mike Crescent Ballroom Monday, June 25
Brooklyn indie-rap linchpin El-P and Atlanta journeyman Killer Mike are kind of on top of the world right now. There's nothing like seeing two dudes with critically acclaimed new albums on the same bill, popping in on each other's tracks and smoking cigarettes on stage (Note: Mike didn't actually smoke it, but he said El was real bad for bringing that thing up there). While Killer Mike's explosive new album probably will get the most accolades, El-P undoubtedly will be hip-hop's man of the year. Seeing the two of them, plus the eccentric entourage joining them on this tour, was a total thrill. It was obvious they were ecstatic, too.
Definitive Jux alum Despot opened the show with compact mid-tempo flows, cheekily making fun of clichéd rap-show audience banter. "If somebody asked you, 'How you doing tonight?,' you wouldn't just yell 'Yeahhh!' at them," he deadpanned. "You'd say, 'I'm not doing very well.'" While loud on the mic, his stage style was that of an über-chiller, cracking that a number of his songs were about "me selling drugs and getting rich."
Conversely, the relatively fresh-faced Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire brought manic energy but wasn't immediately pleased with the results. Near the end of his set, he struck up a workers chant, "Fuck my job!" but apparently didn't hear a strong enough rallying cry of the proletariat. He stopped the song dead, re-ignited a new chant of "Fuck my boss" and then bounced among the crowd for the rest of the track. With that, the 99 percenters responded in kind.
Killer Mike's time was a little rough around the edges, with more than a couple of false starts, but his downright joyful set was taken over the top by his exuberance and wit. He excitedly freestyled verses to songs before his DJ could play them. He praised Obama, and then criticized him for not legalizing weed. He also performed his breakthrough verse from the OutKast hit "The Whole World," which might be the best hip-hop song ever written in 3/4 time.
Killer Mike has been an Atlanta mainstay for years, but I did not expect to see him demonstrate such a wide and compelling emotional spectrum. He played one song dedicated to the memory of his deceased grandparents (admitting he almost cries when he plays it), one dedicated to The Gipper's fucked reign ("Reagan"), and a jam about how his wife is sexier than any stripper (imploring the ladies to "take your man to the strip club"). Killer Mike's performance felt like being treated to the hard-won skills and temperament of a veteran MC, one that possesses both the will to give every part of himself away to an audience plus the energy required for such an emotionally intensive feat.
Unlike the other guys' simple setup, El-P's show seemed premised on compositional nuance. He was backed by two guys on guitar, keytar, super-loud synths, and random percussion, which came in handy on the new jams. Cancer 4 Cure standout "The Full Retard" hit supremely hard with the crowd chanting the delectably scream-able chorus: "You should pump this shit / like they do in the future."
El was damn funny all night, introducing the tour's ugly puppet mascot "Mr. Killums" and thanking the rap nerds for actually bringing girls to the show. His energy was consistent, and by no means did his new material falter, but the crowd got mega-rowdy during the encore. El played "Vital Nerve" by Company Flow, his old crew, and those in the audience who've followed him for that long looked redeemed as they rebounded off each other's bodies. The backup players went crazy on their respective -tars, both sounding rad, but perhaps the crowd's energy was being supplied by the distinctive songwriting craft that everyone had already memorized in their heads from repeated listening.
Either way, it was a clear demonstration of major league hip-hop's tireless evolution. Some aspects are getting irrevocably weird and complex, yet certain elements of the craft can be as simply constructed as a water molecule and, if placed in the right concoction, are just as surprisingly reactive.
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Last night: El-P, Killer Mike, Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire, and Despot at Crescent Ballroom.
First-place call to political action: Killer Mike beckoning the kids in the all-ages section, "Government should be afraid of you, not the other way around!"
First-place Muthafuckin' stage feat: eXquire straight-chugging five throat-gulps of Grey Goose vodka (supplied by El-P) before immediately pouncing on his next verse.