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Photos / Video / Live Review: Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Jay Electronica @ Sonar (2009.09.16)

All photos: Josh Sisk

Full set here

I have always had a giant personal dilemma in regards to hip-hop.  The genre is filled with landmines that derail my systematic approach to digesting and enjoying most other genres of music.  In my mind, the most compelling genius of music happens in live performance.  The convergence of visual, aural and atmospheric factors should make for a unique, vital and one-of-a-kind experience.

I tend to abhor live hip-hop shows (battles are a different story), as you tend to lose a large portion of the visual with the focus on one singular performer, often without any backup other than a backing track.  This has led to the egoism of the hype-up approach in order to catalyze a feedback loop of energy from the crowd to performer, and it often ends up distasteful at its worst, laughable at its best and nearly always obnoxious.  Things devolve into pep rallies reminiscent of adolescence more than should be allowed.


Jay Electronica fell into this trap horrifically.  His ‘tween song banter ranged from bad to insufferable, yet somehow the crowd seemed trained to eat it up.  Maybe that’s because when he put aside the ego and the role of hypeman, picking up the mic as a rapper, he delivered some of the best rhymes of the night.  His style is wordy, dense and filled with vivid metaphors, yet his flow is smooth and steady, like raging waters smoothing over a rocky riverbed.  Counting among his repertoire a number of cuts with J Dilla beats, his set excised from the B$ could have potentially outshined both headliners.  As it stands, the set was marred by awkward silences and particularly momentum-killing moments where he was having mic feedback and when he had his backing DJ searching for a line to play back from some unknown track.


Talib Kweli, by contrast, flowed forth not only with his words but with the show itself. Rarely, if ever letting silence rule the space between songs, Kweli packed every second with agile turns of phrase or phenomenal scratching by his DJ.  A master of crowd control, the charismatic Kweli had the perfect balance of crowd interaction and sensing when to stow it and drop knowledge on everyone in a set largely culled from his collaborative efforts with DJ Hi-Tek.  His steady and rapid-fire rhythmic skills while rapping a capella were top-notch, and his energy and intensity were off-the-charts on cuts like “Get Em High” and “Get By.”  He even gave a birthday shout-out during a Marley sing-along that proved he’s can be as gentle as he goes hard.

3932138266_1b5c79ec02Mos Def most clearly recognizes the need to fill the energy gap as he has taken to becoming a more versatile, multi-instrumental performer.  The visual energy from watching him play the drums while rapping is remarkable, and its contribution to the performance immeasurable.  Unsurprisingly, Mos Def performed the majority of The Ecstatic in gripping fashion.  The end of the night heralded the reunion of Kweli and Mos Def as Black Star, the union which originally thrust them into the spotlight.  The power of that performance almost dwarfed the individuals, and makes you wonder whether either of them has truly stepped out from the shadow of their earliest, arguably finest works?

It turns out Music Without Labels had a camera crew in the house and got some great live footage of Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Soul Cannon.  Check it out after the jump.
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