Hip-hop legend Rakim a letdown
His show at Turner Hall was filled with too much nostalgia
From its birth, hip-hop’s been deemed a young person’s game, with aging rappers too often (and often unfairly) cast aside as irrelevant has-beens.
That’s changing. Within the past year, old-school stars Jay Z and A Tribe Called Quest dominated pop culture consciousness with timely, critically-adored albums. Veterans Killer Mike and El-P are arguably better known now than ever before thanks to their riveting joint venture Run the Jewels.
Hip-hop’s maturity and growth in popularity have created more open-mindedness among aficionados, but these older artists also earned renewed relevance through energy and effort — both of which were sadly in short supply at fellow rap legend Rakim’s Turner Hall Ballroom show Friday.
Despite strolling on stage 70 minutes after the opener wrapped, Rakim received a hero’s welcome, for good reason. He changed the game with genre classic “Paid in Full” in 1987, delivering clever, cutting and complex rhymes with effortless finesse, each word receiving a clarity in delivery worthy of his thoughtful, at times even poetic, craftsmanship. He elevated rap to an art form; his influence, arguably, is immeasurable.
That signature flow was in fine form Friday, the crowd clearly charged (and yelling along) to lines like, “Put brothers to rest like Eliot Ness” (from “Juice (Know the Ledge)”), or when Rakim described his style as “classical, too intelligent to be radical, masterful, never irrelevant, mathematical” during “Don’t Sweat the Technique.”
Rakim earned further fan admiration with several passionate handshakes, and the suggestion that “I don’t write rhymes for me; I write them for you all.”
That may be, but he hasn’t released his own single since 2013 or a new album since 2009. He’s stuck in the past, because there’s very little present music to work with, and Friday, his frequent shout-outs for “old-school hip-hop” showed where his head was at.
You could argue he was giving the people what they wanted, but his fans still got less than they deserved. There’s a great temptation at a nostalgia show to take shortcuts, to coast on an audience’s goodwill surmised from your past glories. And that’s what Rakim did repeatedly Friday.
He barely rapped during set-closing song “Paid in Full,” letting the audience take on about 98% of the verses. He ran down the clock for a couple of minutes with tired, “which side is louder” audience baiting. He left the stage, just 17 minutes in, for a seven-minute DJ break. The final length of the set — just 50 minutes, including that DJ break.
Not exactly what you’d expect from a legend.
There was no doubt about opener Klassik’s commitment. Possessing an insatiable desire to explore new sonic terrain, the local rapper and singer’s 45-minute set largely featured first listens of creative new tracks and a fresh futuristic R&B remake of Woody Guthrie’s topical “This Land is Your Land.” With curveball production breaks he handled himself, and dizzying vocals taken to piercing heights by electronic manipulation, Klassik was in liberating, avant-garde mode, but he never jeopardized the show’s momentum.
Hip-hop legend Rakim performs at Turner Hall Ballroom on Friday during his “Paid in Full” show marking the album’s 30th anniversary. His set was full of nostalgia. See more photos at jsonline.com/tap.