A Tale of Two Concerts

(Getty Images/Chase Manze)

(Getty Images/Chase Manze)

An approximate two hour drive separates the Southern Californian cities of Long Beach and Oxnard. That distance, both from each other and from the cultural hub of Los Angeles, belies their respective statuses as cornerstones within the hip-hop community.

Long Beach has been one of the major centers of SoCal hip hop ever since Snoop Dogg burst onto the G-funk scene with features on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and his own 1993 debut album, Doggystyle. While no one from the city has hit quite the level of influence that Tha Dogg Pound’s leader has, newfound hometown hero Vince Staples is on his way. His hard-hitting production and gritty lyrics about life in the streets have landed him collaborations with Gorillaz, Kendrick Lamar and Hans Zimmer, as well as a tangential Grammy nomination for his contributions to Black Panther: The Album. His electric 2018 album FM!, while short, received wide critical acclaim.

To the north, the beach town of Oxnard has remained seemingly quiet on the hip-hop front. Despite being the birthplace of genius producer Madlib, the city often wasn’t shouted out as much as some others in the state, namely Compton, Long Beach, and Oakland. Until now.

Anderson .Paak has been on the come-up ever since his features on Dr Dre’s Straight Outta Compton accompanying album, Compton. .Paak’s sophomore album Malibu was Grammy-nominated, and his most recent album, Oxnard (whose inspiration should be obvious), featured huge names including Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Pusha T, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre. .Paak’s jazz-infused instrumentals, phenomenal lyricism and remarkable melodic talent shot him into stardom and earned him his first Grammy win for Best Rap Performance of 2018 with his single Bubblin’. And he’s only getting started.

I had the chance to see both of these artists perform on back-to-back nights at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Vince was on his “Smile, You’re On Camera” tour and .Paak was on his “Andy’s Beach Club (ABC)” tour.

I was a little apprehensive going into my first Vince Staples performance. I had heard from friends who had seen the notoriously sarcastic rapper that he could be rude and standoffish to the fans that had paid good money to come see him. But my total adoration for FM! overrode any second thoughts I had about buying tickets, and within minutes of Vince’s arrival on stage, any critics were proven wrong.

Evidently, Vince was going to stay on-brand tonight: cryptic, sardonic, and utterly commanding.

At around 9:00 pm, the bass of the background music subsided and the excited screams of the audience filled its silence. Soon, the LED screen was filled with a greyscale live feed of the spectators’ faces, some flailing their arms around for attention, others grabbing at their phones to get a photo, and still others patiently waiting for the main event. The video was captioned “SMILE, YOU’RE ON CAMERA” and adorned with the tour’s logo, a smiling cartoon face staring off-screen to an unseen something. Evidently, Vince was going to stay on-brand tonight: cryptic, sardonic, and utterly commanding.

As the shot of the fans faded away, radio static filled the venue and the familiar intro to FM! Banger “Feels Like Summer” began. A sea of people flooded forward, trying to get a closer look at the rapper entering from backstage.

Vince’s nonchalant saunter onstage as celebrated radio personality Big Boy uttered the words “let’s go ahead and make you feel like summer” set the tone for the night. Vince was there to make people have fun.

For a group of freezing New Yorkers who had just escaped a winding line on a cold mid-February night, nothing sounded better than for it to Feel Like Summer. Vince performed his verse extraordinarily well, not relying on backtracking or hype men to keep the crowd going. When Ty Dolla Sign’s chorus came on, everyone in the audience sang along while swaying to the croons of “oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, yeah.”

Vince preserved the upbeat energy of the audience all night. His heavy use of bass, emphatic enunciation of his lyrics and continuous interjections of “Everybody having fun?” allowed for a spirited combination of crowd participation and skilled lyricism.

He played tracks from all of his major EP’s and LP’s, including Hell Can Wait, Summertime ’06, Prima Donna, Big Fish Theory, and of course FM!. Despite his low-key demeanor, Vince was not afraid to get physical with his performance. He started a fitting jumping session for “Lift Me Up” and bounced spiritedly around the stage during Juicy J’s hypnotic hook of “Big Fish.”

Other energetic high points included the light-show matching the rapid-fire production of“War Ready” and the ambient blue surrounding Vince for “Rain Come Down.” The crowd’s liveliness peaked during the aptly-named “FUN!” Vince danced around the stage to the bright musical background, belting the hook of “we just wanna have fun, we don’t wanna fuck up nothing” as E-40’s cartoonish ad-libs gave the whole song a lighthearted feel.

However, much like the music at the heart of the concert, the performance Vince put on cannot be taken at face value. If you listen to Vince’s lyrics closely, it is clear he is not one to let the production carry the song. He is one of the best storytellers at the forefront of this generation of hip-hop music.

Vince’s lyrics are heavily influenced by his experiences growing up. Vince joined the Crips at a young age because he “wanted to kill people.” His mother forced him to quit the gang and reform. Since then, he has remained one of the few rappers advocating a sober lifestyle and in his lyrics, he tells the stories of what his life was like growing up in a gang. The vapid smiley faces covering the merchandise and the mosh pits created at the first rumble of a bassline may have you fooled, but Vince Staples is not his contemporaries and this isn’t just a regular rap concert.

Vince has made a personality for himself in his media appearances through unfiltered wit and critical sarcasm of everyone: his interviewers, his fans, fellow rappers. Keep in mind that this is the man who said R. Kelly is “a child molester, and he pees on people and he can’t read and write and he didn’t go to jail. I’m a good person…I’ll be aight.”

I’m quite confident that he didn’t name his tour “Smile, You’re On Camera,” just for the sake of being able to show his audience for 30 seconds at the start of the show. While searching for the logo to Vince’s tour, I came across a number of other “Smile, You’re On Camera” signs, reminding me of their prevalence at department stores, banks and other vendors’ store fronts.

This theme seems to act as a warning to his audience. Just as Vince’s music can show the negative effects of crime, so too does this concert. Throughout the show, the LED screen behind Vince showed a set of TVs depicting live videos of him performing and the audience watching, similar to what one would see in the window of an electronics store.

As the concert continued, these televisions were intermittently broken and battered while showing ‘no signal’ alerts, as if to symbolize the damaging effects of crime and vandalism. In between songs, Vince would also look off to the sides of the stage and at the ceiling, showing us he knew he was being watched at all times and knew what to do while under surveillance.

A night of Vince Staples’ music left me sweaty and hyped by the finale. The exact opposite occurred for my venture to the ‘Andy’s Beach Club’ Tour. Both Oxnard and Long Beach are beach towns, but the jazzy surfer vibes are much more prevalent in .Paak’s music and live performance.

Once again, the warm ambiance was happily welcomed by the New Yorkers in the audience. Walking into Hammerstein Ballroom, the first thing one saw was a simple logo on the screen. “Andy’s Beach Club World Tour” was written in cartoonish font surrounding an emblem consisting of a beach ball and two birds.

As the night’s festivities were about to begin, inflatable cacti popped up on either side of the stage. The dual opening acts of soulful singer Tayla Parx and a surprise DJ set by Funkmaster Flex set the audience up for the way the concert would be organized: flowing R&B and rap, disparate but remarkable.

Around half-an-hour after Flex exited, figures slowly began to make their way onto the stage behind a translucent curtain. Uncertain whether these people were .Paak and his band The Free Nationals or employees setting up for the impending performance, I didn’t pay much attention.

My eyes immediately shot up when I heard Kadhja Bonet’s unmistakable voice singing the beginning of Oxnard’s intro “The Chase.” Her vocals and the chimes played by percussionist Callum Connor were soon overtaken by .Paak, who led on the drums with a guitar and trumpet backing. As soon as .Paak uttered his first “yeah”, the audience went wild.

All the while, the image of a sun rose behind .Paak who, positioned at center stage on a raised platform, was singing and drumming simultaneously.

Throughout the song, different lights went on and off to the rhythm of the drums, creating silhouettes of the individual band members on the curtain before them. All the while, the image of a sun rose behind .Paak who, positioned at center stage on a raised platform, was singing and drumming simultaneously. It was truly a spectacle.

After the opening piece, .Paak came in front of the curtain to perform his Dr. Dre-produced (and ad-libbed) rap “Who R U?” He had a fully choreographed performance for the song alongside his fast-paced hooks and verses. The Free Nationals continued to perform behind the curtain and trippy visuals of burning film and pyramids of light filled the screen.
As he sang “I don’t know, no,” fog cannons were shot off to the sound of trumpets played by acclaimed jazz musician Maurice Brown. Following “Who R U?”, the curtain was removed to give the band their time to shine. .Paak then performed his Grammy-winning “Bubblin’.” As he strutted and danced around the stage to the frenetic violin loops and thumping bassline, images of foam filled the field of vision of everyone in the audience.

The entire concert was a masterpiece. .Paak moved between front stage and the drum set depending on the vibe of the piece, yet he managed to keep the audience completely entranced the whole way through.

The visuals were some of the best I have ever seen at a live performance. They were hand-picked to fit the theme of each song perfectly, from the intense red lights accompanying high-energy hip-hop banger “Come Down” to the palm trees strewn across the screen during jazzy, Kendrick Lamar-assisted “Tints.”

Anderson .Paak and the Free Nationals put their hearts and souls into the performance, with .Paak even stage-diving into the sea of fans while performing the transfixing “The Waters.” They played music from all of the genres .Paak dips his toes in—funk, R&B, electronic and hip-hop—and included all of his major pieces of work including Venice, Malibu, and Oxnard.

One of the emotional peaks of the performance was the closing song: the late Mac Miller’s “Dang!”, which .Paak was featured on. He led the crowd in a chant of “We love you Mac! We miss you Mac!” allowing all those in the audience who felt a connection to the rapper to join him in sharing their emotions.

.Paak’s hook of “I can't keep on losing you, over complications / Gone too soon, wait! We was just hangin' / I can't seem to hold onto, dang” resonated throughout the ballroom.

The two concerts, Vince and .Paak, while similar in location and influences, offered vastly different moods and audience experiences. Vince excelled in his lyrical boom-bap, the focus within his performance both on the music and the lessons behind it. .Paak, while showing off his musical range and talent, made a spectacle out of his performance, including engrossing visuals, an extraordinary live band and choreographed movements.

The “ABC Tour” was the colorful Pixar animation to the “Smile” tour’s live-action LA gang flick. Both were amazing and utterly unforgettable in their own right.

CultureHenri Vrod