Brooklyn-born rapper Joey Bada$$ stopped at Chicago’s Metro earlier this week to promote his upcoming mixtape B4.DA.$$. Playing a satisfying blend of new releases and old hits, Bada$$ and the rest of the Progressive Era collective made it a night to remember for the audience full of hip-hop adoring fans in their late teens.
On the right side of the stage stood a makeshift doorway, erected to allow each performer his dramatic entry. Complete with three steps, a window, and an old bicycle, the prop was meant to resemble the front door of a home in Bed-Stuy, the neighborhood where Bada$$ and other notable rappers (Jay Z, Mos Def, and Biggie Smalls to name a few) grew up. On each of the doorway’s steps, the title of one of Joey’s three mixtapes was written: “B4.DA.$$ / Summer Knights / 1999.”
As each member stepped onto the stage, anticipation in the audience climbed higher and higher.
“School High” and “On My Life” set the mood for the crowd, providing a source of entertainment and an avenue for expression and freedom, though that wasn’t always enough to excite the crowd. Kirk Knight, the second performer of the evening and producer of a number of Pro Era tracks, played a solid set that fell flat with the audience. It was obvious that many people were conserving energy for the headlining act, but Knight was not willing to accept this. Unsatisfied with the crowd’s response, he abruptly stopped and restarted his closing song. This came across as unprofessional and juvenile, and I found myself chanting with the rest of the audience simply for the sake of moving the show along.
The energy in the crowd did peak when Joey Bada$$ took the stage. Hands were raised high, water was flung from both the stage and the house, and a number of areas in the crowd became dedicated mosh pit zones. As fun as it was, I spent much of his set feeling at odds with the DJ, Statik Selektah. He was, admittedly, the most capable and talented DJ of the night, but his presence on stage was something I struggled with. The Bada$$ discography offers plenty of arrangements that so easily lend themselves to a full, four or five-piece band, and I generally find live rap with band accompaniment to bring much more excitement than a DJ set could ever be capable of. However, even with all of Bada$$’ melodically-oriented tracks, using a DJ may be more effective for the nostalgic appeal that he is successfully cashing in on. Anyone who has listened to Joey Bada$$ can tell that his songs have more in common with the classic ’90s greats than with modern rap acts. His direct, uncomplicated drum beats are reminiscent of old 808 sequences, and his diverse use of samples suggests the influence of a time when the stage DJ was crucial to an MC’s success. Nowadays, the artistry behind turntablism is largely forgotten, but Bada$$ does his part to honor the genre’s roots. On perhaps his most popular song, “Waves,” Statik Selectah took a scratch solo, after which Joey introduced him, making Bada$$ the only MC of the night to credit his DJ.
Upon understanding this, I began to see the show in a different light. There was more depth to Pro Era’s performance than I initially ascribed them. Although it was a night rife with cheering, dancing, and gut-rumbling bass, the high point for me was, ironically, the quietest point of the set. The entire Progressive Era crew took to the stage for the final song, but Joey introduced it by first paying respects to a deceased member of the collective, Capital STEEZ. At Joey’s request, the entire venue shared a few moments of silence for their friend. It was, of course, preceded and followed by the fun, reckless entertainment we all expect from a rap show. But seeing all of the thoughtful elements of Joey Bada$$’ performance – from the sentimental silence, to the strategic DJ use, to the clever stage props – made the group feel so much more 3-dimensional for me. On the whole it was a great show and, to my surprise, once I overcame my strict notions about what a concert should be, I found myself appreciating the music not only as a source of mindless entertainment, but also on the musical, emotional, and intellectual levels that I had so readily dismissed. Maybe next time I’ll even try out the mosh pit.