Wednesday, September 26, 2014
Thanksgiving at Erykah Badu’s house
For reasons I never bothered to ascertain, the Ohio neo-soul-hop duo Fly.Union never showed up, so Wednesday night’s show began around 8.30 p.m. with a set by the New Orleans-born, London-based, cosmos-oriented rapper Jay Electronica. In the interest of full disclosure I will say that I have held Jay Electronica in impossibly high, messiah-caliber esteem since about 2009; that he has done so little since then to validate or defy my expectations — his first LP has allegedly been done for more than three years, and your guess is as good as mine when we’ll hear it — is part of what I like about him. All the same, I was prepared to be disappointed, because if you can’t be bothered to drop your damn album by now, how likely is it that you can be bothered to put on a rewarding live show?
How thrilling it was to be so wrong. On record (that is, on the mixtape or two’s worth of songs he’s released or guested on in the last six years) Jay is nimble and inventive and ideally unpredictable, but also possessed of a sort of prophetic authority — like a heady mix between Ghostface Killah and Chuck D, with some 9/11-truther vibes thrown in to keep you on your toes. He seems to make inspired decisions — like setting his newish live spin
on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It” to the beat of Biggie’s “Kick in the Door” — very casually, and every time he veers toward the mawkish he naturally corrects course with something impeccably left-field (see his unjustly ignored post-Kendrick verse on Big Sean’s “Control,” where he says “the eyelashes like umbrellas when it rains from the heart” and almost immediately thereafter calls himself “Jay Electricity / PBS Mysteries
I could go on for a long time — I have elsewhere
— but in any case it would have been fair to expect him to be entertaining and personable and fascinating live, even participatory in a rootsy hip-hop kind of way — but he was the life
of the fucking party
. Four songs in he invited a few dozen fans to join him up on stage, where they stayed for the rest of his set, even after he got down and spent the last ten minutes rapping from the ballroom floor. He puffed on joints they offered him, stopped the show for about a minute to pose for selfies with anyone who wanted, let a gangly white kid rap in his stead for a while, and so on; when he rapped, though, he did it like it’s what he was made to do
. Thrilled, Jay’s stagemates rapped along effusively the whole time, to his songs and a few golden-era classics, and here’s the thing: even on songs we all know and love, nobody could quite keep up
. Even the kid with lyrics from “Exhibit C” printed on his T-shirt
fell out of sync now and again.
Which, lest that sound critical, was perfect. Jay wasn’t a touring performer so much as a sensei, a living public service announcement, an unbelievably cool older cousin in town for just one night. As a lyricist he’s always built wonderfully original and sturdy structures that are great fun to play on and learn from, and he managed to convey that doubly in person. “Thank you, Frisco,” he said by way of conclusion. “I don’t take your time and energy for granted.” Then he asked for someone to lead him to the bar and buy him some Jack Daniels.