Rakim, Celebrity Theatre, 2/20/13

Rakim @ Celebrity Theatre|2/20/13
The word "legend" is something that shouldn't be tossed around lightly, especially when it applies to hip-hop. During hip-hop's 30-year run, we have seen numerous careers rise and fall. Hell, some artists have straight up vanished from existence. Many would argue that hip-hop is the most unforgiving genre when it comes to career longevity. It might even be harder to sustain a career than it is to break into the business (and that's hard). But reluctance to mythologize aside, they don't call Rakim the "God MC" for nothing. Last night he brought his ICON tour to Phoenix's Celebrity Theatre, giving true hip-hop heads a chance to cross one of their bucket lists.

Rakim's enjoyed one of the lengthiest careers in hip-hop history, and he's considered to be one of the greatest lyricists of all time. The 45-year old emcee has released numerous projects, including the critically acclaimed Paid in Full with Eric B, widely considered to be one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. Since then, Rakim has continued to release new projects and do the occasional show, mainly limiting appearances to big events such as Rock the Bells. Looking for a change of pace, he launched the Icon Tour. Last night was his fifth stop on the 2013 jaunt.

Due to traffic issues, I arrived to the venue a little later than expected, just in time to catch the last opening act, JP. Most of the time I was watching them, I was trying to figure out the best way to gently convey that they just weren't having a very good performance. They certainly did not fit the vibe of the show, and I swear the main emcee was either lip- syncing or he had a really weak voice. Either way, an emcee should not rap over his vocals. I repeat: an emcee should not rap over his vocals. It's just tacky and shows a lack of talent. Anyway, I sat in silence and sipped on my Hennessey and politely waited for them to finish. When they did, the announcer came on and said that Rakim would be on after a 20- minute intermission.

An hour later Rakim took the stage, much to the relief of the restless crowd. Not one to BS, he immediately went into a bevy of his hits including "Move the Crowd," "Ain't No Joke," and "I Know You Got Soul." The crowd was like putty in his hands, reciting every word back to him while DJ 33 ⅓ kept the crowd's energy level high. After a little juggle session from the DJ, Rakim decided to show the audience his lesser-known skills as a DJ. Surprisingly (or maybe not, he's been around for a while) the emcee made the records sing with some quick juggle moves. After some more tracks, Rakim brought a couple of children on to the stage to hype up the crowd. One of the kids seemed made for this as he reached into the audience and slapped hands with as many people as he could, all while keeping a stone cold look on his face. Future star? Rakim was in full stride by the time he got to "Microphone Fiend," prompting a B-boy to hop the barriers and bust a windmill until security carted him off. Thinking about that now, it must have been a dream for that kid to be able to breakdance live on stage next to Rakim during a classic. Good for him.

When Rakim dropped "Guess Who's Back," I felt that there was something a little off sounding about the beat. My friend who accompanied me pointed out that the beat sounded like a cheap remake of the original. There are many reasons why this could be true - with complicated production rights in place, it actually happens a lot more than you think. I didn't try to dwell on it too much. Apparently, Rakim didn't want to either, as he only did the first verse of the song and quickly moved on. Rakim's stage presence and voice projection is pretty impeccable. Decades of stage time have done the man well. Gracefully, Rakim jetted through track after track with ease and poise while remembering to slap hands with the audience and pose for pictures. He ended his 50-minute set with probably his biggest hit, "Paid in Full," letting the crowd rap the majority of the song for him has he played hype man. After a brief a cappella, Rakim gracefully rolled the mic onto the stage a faded back into the dressing room.

All in all, Rakim showed why he's considered to be one of the greatest to do it. If you are a true hip-hop fan, he's a must-see. He's more than an old school history lesson; he's one of the reasons hip-hop thrives today. The last decade of his career hasn't been loaded with smash hits like his first two, but last night he showed he hasn't lost his skill. Hopefully this tour will be the fire needed to get Rakim to return to booth and gives us more classics to last for generations.

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Jaron is a musician, writer, promoter, videographer, and a founder of the like-minded collective and movement known as Starstruck.
Contact: Jaron Ikner