After 16 years, Smokin Grooves Fest makes its long-awaited return & blazes a new trail in Long Beach

Smokin Grooves Fest 2018 - NxWorries


Anderson .Paak of NxWorries

Photos by Joseph Gray & Natalie Somekh // Written by Joseph Gray //

Smokin Grooves Fest //
The Queen Mary – Long Beach, CA
June 16th, 2018 //

We are in the heart of festival season. This is a time of the year for music lovers that’s often synonymous with multiple days of unforgiving heat, dusty campgrounds and some young adults who are readily anxious for a mosh pit. The long food-truck lines and heart-shaped sunglasses, polka dots, ripped denim and tie-dyed garments that have become staples at a large majority of music festivals — particularly during the summer months — were present, but Smokin Grooves Fest offered a welcome alternative. And based on its history, Southern California concert promoter Goldenvoice wouldn’t have had it any other way.

For one day only, a sold-out crew enjoyed moderate temperatures at the overcast waterfront adjacent to the historic Queen Mary in Long Beach for Smokin Grooves’ long-awaited return. The event, which last took place 16 years ago, pushed hip-hop, R&B and soul to the forefront of popular music at the time by booking The Fugees, A Tribe Called Quest, Cypress Hill and a whole lot more when Lollapalooza and other rock-focused festivals weren’t showing them the same kind of love.

The crowd, relaxed with a peaceful aura but also energized, mirrored much of the lineup, which showcased veterans such as Erykah Badu, The Roots and Yasiin Bey (fka Mos Def) among buzzing newcomers like H.E.R., Smino, THEY. and Arin Ray across the 38-act bill.

I fall somewhere in the middle between those two age groups, so it was fitting that the uber-talented rapper/singer/drummer Anderson .Paak had just walked onto the “Free Your Mind” main stage when I showed up. .Paak, 32, wore a smile as expressive as his music, packaged with a bright nautical-themed ensemble. He effortlessly impressed with standouts “Suede”, “Another Time” and “What More Can I Say” off Yes Lawd!, his 2016 LP with Los Angeles hip-hop producer Knxwledge as part of their collaborative project NxWorries (pronounced “No Worries”). The duo’s set would eventually culminate in a playful dance-off between women, which fans showed their appreciation for before .Paak and Knxwledge said their goodbyes.

Many attendees went back and forth from the main stage to the two other aptly named stages — “Smokin'” and “Groovin'” — via an elevated overpass, where we overheard several praising the Brooklyn troop Phony Ppl for their soulfully funky grooves.

Smokin Grooves Fest 2018 - Miguel


Miguel

However, anticipation for The Roots kept me at the main stage. It proved to be a wise decision, as their nearly hour-long performance reminded me why the Grammy-winning band is still so revered after more than three decades. Black Thought got the crowd riled up with a 10-minute barrage of lyrical proficiency that so many have come to know as his “Hot 97 Freestyle” after it hit the internet in December and quickly went viral, while his bandmates exuberantly jumped with sousaphones and guitars during “You Got Me” and a number of other hits. But providing a jolt like he only can, the one and only Busta Rhymes showed up for a quick-but-memorable performance of “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” and “Pass the Courvoisier, Part II”.

The concert, nevertheless, was not without its faults, as some complained about the sound quality during various times, but neglecting hometown artists certainly wasn’t one of them.

Not long after the buzz around Thundercat’s bass-guitar skills subsided, fellow LA-area acts Jhené Aiko and Miguel were greeted with admiration. Aiko, for one, entertained fans behind flowers, acoustics and enchanting vocals with occasional curse words. Miguel, who proudly reminded us that he was from nearby San Pedro and Inglewood, kept the momentum, along with his fringed microphone stand, moving by performing several crowd-pleasers like “How Many Drinks?”, “Sure Thing” and “Come Through and Chill”, among others.

The event’s headliner was Erykah Badu, who performed during the tour’s second edition in 1997 and looked like she hasn’t missed a beat since. Playing a drum machine between songs while weaving some classic hip-hop instrumentals — one of which was Mobb Deep’s “Shook (Part II)” — into her set, the neo-soul queen dazzled with her seductive, incredible voice and responsive wit for an hour-long class on “How to Deliver a Full-on Show.”

Several journalists and photographers, myself included, mentioned at various times the need to leave early to avoid the traffic on the way. But Badu and others made liars out of us, and we couldn’t have been happier in the end.

With CyHi the Prynce on the bill, Big K.R.I.T. shows fans why his moniker is much bigger than him

Big K.R.I.T.By Joseph Gray //

Big K.R.I.T. with CyHi the Prynce, Childish Major //
Echoplex – Los Angeles
April 19th, 2018 //

Big K.R.I.T. feels like an uncle.

Even though we are nearly the same age, the ambitious Mississippi rapper has always been unafraid when it comes to detailing his grief, mishaps and the veteran-like wisdom that he has soaked up along the way. And with the hope that his heartfelt vulnerability and growth can produce some good energy for his fans, the “King Remembered in Time” displayed why his moniker is much bigger than him.

Freed from his major-label frustrations after leaving Def Jam Recordings in 2016, Big K.R.I.T. appeared to be at ease when he took the stage in LA at Echoplex last Thursday as part of his “Heavy Is the Crown” tour that spans six weeks and 29 U.S. cities.

The show began with feel-good, Southern sets from emcee/producer Childish Major, who co-starred with energetic hip-hop duo EarthGang, and CyHi the Prince, who took us on a lyrical trip to the streets and the tabernacle.

CyHi the Prynce


CyHi the Prynce

But the sold-out crowd knew this was Big K.R.I.T.’s night, and he showed why the same uncle who will pull you aside for guidance is also often the same one dancing, smiling and serving as the life of the party whenever family gets together.

This duality is fitting coming on the heels of his 2017 LP, the double-sided 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time. While the first half of the album (entitled Big K.R.I.T.) brims with trunk-rattling confidence, the other (named Justin Scott) soulfully touches upon his battles with anxiety, contradictions and fame.

At Echoplex, we were treated to the “rapper” and the man himself as bass-heavy party starters like the title-track opener and “Confetti” from 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time got everyone hyped, while Atlanta’s T.I. came out to perform his verse on “Big Bank”. After singling out one excited fan, who was wearing a shirt with a giant picture of his face, during the easygoing “1999” and paying homage to Southern rap pioneers UGK, Big K.R.I.T. took the latter half of his hour-long set to connect with the crowd.

From his battles with alcoholism (as heard on “Drinking Sessions”) and inconsistency (from “Mixed Messages”) to his contrasting thoughts on religion (“Higher Calling”) and newfound clarity (“Bury Me in Gold”), a completely drenched Big K.R.I.T. painted a picture of his royal advancement — a positive one that he explained is not only meant to be a reminder for him, but also for us.

Jay 305 backs up his ‘more LA than the Rams’ claim in front of a hometown crowd at The Roxy

Jay 305By Joseph Gray //

Jay 305 //
The Roxy Theatre – West Hollywood, CA
September 25th, 2017 //

South Central rapper Jay 305, as confident and animated as ever, proclaims that he is “more LA than the Rams,” and you’d be hard-pressed to find many fans of West Coast hip-hop who disagree with him right now.

Unlike LA’s two new NFL teams that continue to fight –- in half-filled stadiums — to find their footing, Jay 305 (born Jay Cummins) is a regional staple. That was pretty apparent during his headlining show at The Roxy Theatre on Monday, as fans shouted the aforementioned claim heard on his authoritative and fun Taking All Bets debut via Interscope Records.

Running through everything from standout tracks like “All Around the World” and “99” to his “Youzza Flip” hit, which ignited his buzz five years prior, Jay 305 has seemingly pushed legal troubles and album delays aside to focus on his craft — and it showed in his hometown.

Lucky to be alive, YG is celebrating life to the fullest

YGBy Joseph Gray //

Red Bull Sound Select – 30 Days in LA: YG //
The Wiltern – Los Angeles
November 29th, 2016 //

“They knew the code to my gate. That was awkward. Answer this: I got a million dollars. Who shot me?”

Before asking the million-dollar question, YG was wheeled onto the stage at The Wiltern in a stretcher covered by the haunting sounds of the real-life news reports from the night a bullet from an unknown assailant pierced his hip during a recording-studio shooting last year. The pitch-black building became illuminated with surgeons on an LED screen as we re-lived the “operation” on the Compton rapper. Nevertheless, YG assured the crowd this wouldn’t be a somber affair, rapping through paranoia toward the heavens with the brash resiliency and expanding maturation that’s led him to one of rap’s most improbable rises.

Did YG’s homies set him up? Was it the guy he knocked out during a past fight? Did a girl he was sleeping with tell her boyfriend about YG’s studio hideout due to fear? All of these still unanswered questions flow through the heart of the song “Who Shot Me?” This serves as the vivid crux of YG’s sophomore LP Still Brazy (released in June) and the opener for arguably the biggest name of Red Bull Sound Select’s 30 Days in LA series.

“Damn, I ain’t know it was gon’ happen like this … But I guess God has some other plans for me. ‘Cause that shit ain’t stop me,” recalls YG at the end of the song.

It was a thankful and brazen declaration extremely fitting for the 26-year-old who is still driving at top speed but maneuvering in directions many didn’t imagine. YG (born Keenon Daequan Ray Jackson) wasn’t expected to be here, let alone serve as the driving force in the resurgence of gangsta rap. It’s not too often that a major debut album comes 4-5 years after a breakout single, but such was the case for YG after the playfully crass “Toot It and Boot It” came and went without much of a follow-up from Def Jam. However, YG leaned on the same things he used to charm a horde of anxious fans drenched in red attire to match their favorite Blood rapper: self-awareness, survival and a new-age, authentic look into LA’s culture, with equal celebrations for the lucky-to-get-by days and champagne-spilling nights making for something we can all relate and party to.

This concoction, tied to an undeniably formidable rapper-producer connection with LA native DJ Mustard, helped form YG’s 2014 debut My Krazy Life that was a half-decade/lifetime in the making. A first-class concept album that offered some perspective to those who were unable to avoid gang life’s abyss, YG picked up where Grammy winner Kendrick Lamar left off with his own views on the “Hub City,” which has become a global name in the process.

YG

With his mind-bending suspicions briefly on hold, YG jumped back into the now-welcomed madness that proceeded it. He treated the crowd to the gigantic “BPT” before confessing — like all of us spectators — “I Just Wanna Party”, the standout track from My Krazy Life that features Top Dawg Entertainment’s ScHoolBoy Q and Jay Rock. While neither TDE member was in the house, that didn’t put a damper on the night’s energy or YG’s willingness to visit Bompton for as long as possible.

Playing to the Bloods’ longstanding vernacular — replacing C’s with B’s — that he has made mainstream, YG then went into “Bicken Back Being Bool”, showcasing how he can turn a robbery on an average day into something we can all boogie to. YG may never be mistaken for the world’s greatest lyricist, but he has a knack for sharp storytelling — something even the secret service had to take notice of during this past election season.

An ever-present voice and face of the streets, YG isn’t taking anything lightly. Police brutality and racial injustice are getting the same relentless attention that his escapades with women previously would, and that’s something the U.S. government can attest to.

This narrative was highlighted by “FDT”, the anti-Donald Trump anthem featuring LA rapper Nipsey Hussle that has grown even more relevant after this year’s U.S. presidential election. The secret service forced some slight edits to the record after some calls to Def Jam threatened its release, but that certainly hasn’t stopped YG’s momentum.

For evidence, look no further than his roaring hometown concertgoers at The Wiltern. This contingent included several who were randomly plucked from the audience — even the ones whom YG joked looked “like they work at Facebook” — to take turns beating a Donald Trump piñata before Bay Area rapper G-Eazy surprisingly appeared to rap his verse on the remix.

If extended album delays, a near-death experience and government censorship can’t stop YG, I don’t know what can. And neither does he.

Setlist:
Who Shot Me?
BPT
I Just Wanna Party
Word Is Bond (with Slim 400)
Twist My Fingaz
Really Be (Smokin N Drinkin)
My N***a
Toot it and Boot It
Left, Right
Don’t Tell ‘Em (Jeremih tease)
Why You Always Hatin’?
Who Do You Love?
Still Brazy
FDT (with G-Eazy)

Jhené Aiko turns a hometown show at Avalon into her own living room party

Jhené AikoBy Joseph Gray //

Red Bull Sound Select – 30 Days in LA: Jhené Aiko //
Avalon Hollywood – Los Angeles
November 21st, 2016 //

Jhené Aiko really, really, really didn’t want to leave her home.

A rare, chilly breeze hawked through LA, but it wasn’t that or the pre-Thanksgiving traffic preventing the alluring Ladera Heights singer-songwriter from avoiding La Brea Ave. or the 101 freeway. Most of the city’s residents would empathize with either headache, but when you’re enjoying an ambiance-filled dwelling with a harp, cello, drums, stylish candles and feathery smoke all while being surrounded by some of your closest friends on a bunch of plush couches and bean bags, it becomes even more understandable.

Lucky for Aiko (and more importantly for us as spectators), Red Bull Sound Select decided to double their duties as a temporary moving company. Ever the gracious host, she was more than agreeable to the modification, welcoming her new hometown friends to a cozy world decorated with special guests and blue party cups of engaging melodies for a living room “jam” that will not be soon forgotten.

While much of Red Bull Sound Select’s annual 30 Days in LA series focuses on providing a platform for up-and-coming artists, Hollywood’s historic and spacious club Avalon offered a whole different feel for the fully formed Aiko. With tie-dyed merchandise of Aiko’s face being sold inside and self-embroidered shirts being hustled outside, the show felt surprisingly big, unforeseen only because Aiko’s music — delicate, sly and often vulnerable — is not what you would imagine ringing throughout the multilevel venue that routinely hosts DJs with frenetic and flashy light shows to entertain raging partygoers. On this night though, it was perfect.

Jhené Aiko

Slipping to the front of her foggy living room a little after 10 p.m. to excited screams, Aiko tucked away any of those doubts into a satiny topcoat while also keeping her footing atop slow-dripping piano keys. Kicking things off with “New Balance”, she patiently explored unexpected love on the fan-favorite opener that she was pushed to release in August by TWENTY88 collaborator and G.O.O.D. Music rapper Big Sean.

It’s been said that it’s not a true house party until the arrival of unexpected guests. There are those you turn the music down for before escorting out and those whom you hand the mic to in order to keep things going, and Aiko opted for the latter in sticking with the theme of the night. Big Sean, the Detroit emcee and second half to her conceptual relationship, joined his rumored real-life beau as the two traded pleasant yearnings, playful remarks, embraces and back-and-forth vibes during their onstage collaboration that was highlighted by “On the Way” from Aiko’s self-titled studio album, which was released earlier this year.

Despite her soothing and beautifully gentle voice, Aiko’s music is not just seeped in ballads of love found or love lost. Sex, infidelity, drugs, encouragement, motherhood and more subjects fuse together to produce a great sense of relatability to her audience, which she played to by having intimate and good-natured conversations with the audience during her hour-long set. The evening was capped off with more fun in the form of R&B singer Omarion’s “Post to Be” featuring Aiko and Grammy winner Chris Brown, who emerged onstage with his signature pizzazz for a slowed-down acoustic version of the platinum smash.

This, like the rest of Aiko’s performance, was backed by a badass band, as each member took turns soloing to keep the good energy flowing all night. Between standout songs “Comfort Inn Ending (Freestlye)”, “The Worst” and “The Vapors” (which Long Beach rapper Vince Staples joined her for) from her Sail Out EP and its LP predecessor Souled Out, her living room party also became a lesson in welcoming the complex rewards and penalties of susceptibility.

Jhené Aiko with Big Sean


Jhené Aiko with Big Sean

“Maybe I have made mistakes and been through my fair share of pain. But all in all, it’s been OK, I’ve lived well,” Aiko sang, flashing a slight smile that matched the evening’s appreciative vibe over “Eternal Sunshine”.

Nevertheless, prior to kicking us out, Aiko wanted to make sure we got home safely.

“I stay up all night for you, I’m a trooper. Call and request, I pick up, pull up quick as Uber,” said Aiko, turning the aggressive line from her recently released and sensual single “Maniac” into a PSA for concertgoers to make sure they find a safe way to get home.

And before we left, Aiko gave out gift bags in the form of song requests from the crowd as she morphed into an old-school lounge singer. Stepping back into the cold air before hopping into an Uber, my driver asked me where I was coming from.

“The coolest house party I’ve been to in a while,” I told him.

Setlist:
New Balance
Living Room Flow
Déjà Vu (TWENTY88 cover) (with Big Sean)
On the Way (TWENTY88 cover) (with Big Sean)
Comfort Inn Ending
W.A.Y.S.
Eternal Sunshine
Bed Peace
WTH
Vapors (with Vince Staples)
Drunk Texting / Post to Be / Drunk Texting Breakdown (with Chris Brown)
Maniac
The Worst

Encore:
Space Jam

With dignity and grace, Pusha T stays true to himself

Pusha TBy Joseph Gray //

Red Bull Sound Select – 30 Days in LA: Pusha T with Boogie //
Belasco Theater – Los Angeles
November 16th, 2016 //

“Thinking back on it, it really was all a set up. You were setting me up to be the solo artist I never saw myself as.”

This week, G.O.O.D. Music President and rapper Pusha T (born Terrence LeVarr Thornton) graciously reflected on his life of six years ago, when he was summoned to Hawaii for six months as part of label founder Kanye West’s brain trust of inspiration. The outcome of the famed recording sessions and basketball games became My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West’s fifth studio album that brilliantly pits the Grammy winner’s defiant indestructibility against his haunting burdens as he returned from self-imposed deportation stemming from his infamous acceptance-speech interruption at the MTV Video Music Awards.

A powerful declaration set to wide-ranging and rich stadium sounds while not forgetting hip-hop’s basement essentials, West’s album also served as the perfect opportunity for the younger of the Thornton brothers — who together formed the rap duo Clipse — to share his brash, relentless talents with the world.

This opportunity and eventual partnership has not gone forgotten on Pusha T, who, prior to posting an open letter on Instagram to West (now reportedly in the hospital after cutting his latest tour short) on the six-year anniversary of MBDTF, took the stage at the Belasco Theater last Wednesday night as part of Red Bull Sound Select’s 30 Days in LA series with a similar graciousness as the headlining act he’d never imagined he would be.

“It’s always love when I come to LA. LA was always riding with me,” said Thornton, the veteran Virginia Beach-raised lyricist who unconventionally showed up earlier than we expected. Following Compton emcee Boogie’s warm hometown vibes, Pusha — with his signature braids, ad-libbing snarl, sweat pants and panther-embroidered jean jacket — proceeded to get comfortable and get to it.

Pusha T

There were no illuminated, floating stages to hover above a raucous mosh pit like West exhibited on his Saint Pablo tour. No maniacal dances or broads in Atlanta like rapper Desiigner frequently flaunts. No special guests like you’d often find at Big Sean’s shows. Unlike some of his labelmates, Pusha T opted to deliver us a PSA instead of a surprise, sending a reminder that this is what rappers are supposed to look like.

Not in the vein of the get-off-my-lawn emcees who shun everything that sounds different from their era, Pusha has embraced being a rapper’s rapper, refusing to deviate from the ease that he displays in combining vivid storytelling with a cloak of brazen confidence — an attribute new UFC two-division champion Conor McGregor would likely approve of. The performance proved to be a double-edged sword because while the Pusha T fan in me gladly recited witty rhyme after witty rhyme, the casual fan looking for big thrills may have been underwhelmed.

Fortunately, the larger percentage of concertgoers fell in line with the former, scrunching their faces in approval as President Pusha ran through “Crutches, Crosses, Caskets”, “M.P.A.” and more from his sophomore solo LP King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude. The show’s early highlights came during “Numbers on the Board” and “Nosetalgia”, the head-nodding, boom-bap standouts from his debut standalone album that showcase Pusha at his very best.

“20-plus years of selling Johnson & Johnson. I started out as a baby-face monster. No wonder there’s diaper rash on my conscience,” rapped Thornton, giving his LA fans the metaphorical opener they had been waiting for. This preceded the all-encompassing highlight when he took time for a brief Clipse homage with the classic “Grindin'” and the Future and Pharrell-assisted “Move That Dope” before turning his attention to the “toast for the douchebags” that changed his life.

While refusing to sing as the recognizable piano keys grew louder, the crowd happily obliged in assuming West’s echoing duties before Pusha joined the party, rapping the standout verse on “Runaway” that he acquired by being as greedy to work as he was thankful. Promising that new albums from him and the rest of label were on the way, Pusha, if anything, made it clear on this night that his appetite for more will not be diminishing anytime soon.

Isaiah Rashad makes a statement at Echoplex while giving fans a lesson in reverse psychology

Isaiah RashadBy Joseph Gray //

Red Bull Sound Select – 30 Days in LA: Laneway Presents Isaiah Rashad with Mansionair, Sampa the Great //
Echoplex – Los Angeles
November 14th, 2016 //

Isaiah Rashad is a liar. On the surface that sounds absurd, considering how unregretful the Chattanooga, Tenn., emcee is about wearing his desires, anxiety and near self-demise on his sleeves. Hundreds of restless LA-area residents who were at Echoplex last Monday can vouch for my improbable story, though they’d also probably say how happy they were to be duped by the Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) member.

On this night, as part of Red Bull Sound Select’s 30 Days in LA series, Rashad, TDE’s talented outlier, was originally scheduled to arrive onstage around 10:20 p.m. Yet, nearly an hour later, fidgety concertgoers were still jockeying for position in the darkened Echoplex tucked under an overpass not far from downtown LA.

With liquid courage taking over one attendee as he attempted to start altercations during anxious “Zaywop” (Rashad’s nickname) chants for the 25-year-old, there was a brief reprieve coming in the form of Mansionair, a Sydney-based band that mixed exceptional vocals with sweet electro-soul, culminating in a cool surprise as they brought out a full choir to perform with them for the first time ever. Despite the well-liked appetizer that came after Sampa the Great’s passionate set, the apprehension for more was palpable until Rashad’s DJ emerged, signaling it was almost time for the real fun to begin.

And when it did, Rashad torpedoed onto stage and turned the restlessness in the room on its head with “Smile”, the apropos homecoming banger he released after years of uncertainty that followed his 2014 EP Cilvia Demo. It was fitting because prior to his reemergence, which was sparked by the song, Rashad admitted to being addicted to Xanax and alcohol, and it almost led to him being dropped from his West Coast record label on several occasions.

Isaiah Rashad

From his issues with substance abuse to the tears he shed while listening to Kid Cudi’s music and his open-book thoughts on the humanizing of mental-health issues, Rashad’s journey from being the contemplative unknown in superstar Kendrick Lamar’s crew to a complete artist deserving of your attention has been steeped in honesty.

One song down and beads of sweat already dripping down his face, Rashad nevertheless promised that despite the frenzy that Sampa the Great and Mansionair created, his show in support of his latest release The Sun’s Tirade wouldn’t be too crazy. That, though, couldn’t have been more of a lie.

Manipulating fans of all ages with a nimble flow that was heightened to match the crowd’s energy, Rashad excitedly took us to the same place where his reflections have led him during his two-year hiatus. And not to be outdone by a couple of surprises, but he brought out rapper Hugh Augustine for “Tity and Dolla” before he really took things up another level.

The latter revelation came in the form of songstress SZA, Rashad’s TDE labelmate who assisted, danced and caused a near trampling of excited women near the stage as the two bounced smiles off each other while performing “Stuck in the Mud”. Folks were more than appeased at this point, but the good vibes kept on coming.

Isaiah Rashad

“Wop! 4r Da Squaw, dog?! Where’s 4r Da Squaw?!”

One spectator in the audience let me move in front of him to photograph Rashad with the promise that I’d switch spots during “4r Da Squaw”, a shared album favorite about growth which was repeatedly requested after Rashad finished each song. Considering it’s more of a slower-paced song, I wasn’t sure the young fan would get his wish during Rashad’s hour-long set, but soon after the guest appearances by Augustine and SZA, I made good on my promise when “4r Da Squaw” finally came on.

Even though Lamar was not in attendance on this night, Rashad let the crowd fill in for the Grammy winner during his rapid-fire guest spot on “Wat’s Wrong”. And when Lamar’s verse got to the part about his desires to vandalize President-elect Donald Trump’s headquarters, the left-leaning crowd erupted as expected.

Moving the focus toward a vote all could agree on, Rashad called for his groovy single “Free Lunch” to christen his feel-good show. Soon after, more “Zaywop!” chants would resume, this time beckoning Rashad to return for an encore, but when they eventually went unanswered, fans dispersed knowing their patience was still well worth the wait.

Setlist:
Smile
Brenda
Soliloquy
Cilvia Demo
R.I.P. Kevin Miller
Tity & Dolla (with Hugh Augustine)
Heavenly Father
Rope // Rosegold
Menthol
Nelly
Stuck in the Mud
Ronnie Drake (with SZA)
Warm Winds (with SZA)
4r Da Squaw
Find a Topic (Homies Begged)
A Lot
Wat’s Wrong
Free Lunch
Park
m.A.A.d. city (Kendrick Lamar cover)

Chicago rapper Mick Jenkins pours his heart and soul out during his latest stop through LA

Mick JenkinsBy Joseph Gray //

Mick Jenkins with Smino //
Bootleg Theater – Los Angeles
October 4th, 2016 //

Mick Jenkins does not have all the answers, nor does he pretend to. However, in the midst of America’s political revitalization that grows more and more volatile in a presidential election year surrounded by several recent instances of police brutality, the Chicago rapper does offer some healing — an elixir comprised of reflection, faith-based actions and a soundtrack that puts an emphasis on love. And the pot boils over into something not to be ignored.

Even if it’s only for the time and that moment, the good vibes are undeniable. The 25-year-old Jenkins showed this liberation off at LA’s Bootleg Theater last Tuesday while on his “A Quest for Love” tour, which is doubling as a victory lap for his well-constructed, critically acclaimed album The Healing Component, during the latest installment of Red Bull’s Sound Select series. While the intimate settings of the series that’s curated by the popular energy drink are often accompanied with baking temperatures, last Monday provided a different but suitable cool.

Jenkins followed St. Louis native Smino, the neighboring rapper in Chicago’s Zero Fatigue crew. Smino mixed melodic harmonies, clever wordplay and playful fun, the latter of which culminated in an entertaining moment where he danced to classic records in an ode to his city’s artists like Grammy winner Nelly. With more than enough reason to dive into Smino’s catalog after the show, Jenkins was ready to get to the meat and potatoes of his crusade.

Sneaking onstage without a grand introduction but with a live band intact, Jenkins charmed by using his signature deep-and-stern voice to power the crowd through his waters of truth and purpose. Yet, this was not an hour-long set where everything relied simply on prophetic words. The diverse and sold-out crowd came unhinged several times to big sounds, notably during “Jazz”, a standout from Jenkins’ 2014 mixtape The Water(s) — a precursor then and last week to his latest LP that highlights the positives of humanity over the blues we often learn about from local news coverage.

Mick Jenkins

While he suggested that we “drink more water” during his performance, Jenkins continually refreshed the audience with a jug of feel-good material from THC. From the warm “Spread Love” to the darker, more hypnotic “Daniels Bloom”, Jenkins used his lyrical sword to cut through faith, violence and race toward a light, which at the very least, was different.

“Don’t let the struggle make your heart harder,” Jenkins rapped. “Sip the truth, spit the truth. That’s the smart water.”

With all the love, passion and consciousness in the room, Jenkins was still down for a riotous goodbye — this coming in the form of “Social Network (Gang)” by Chicago hip-hop collective Hurt Everybody that he’s featured on — where he motivated one last frenzy before a surprise stage dive.

After these small moves toward promoting love, Jenkins asked us at the end of the night to let him know if a difference was truly felt. Amid smiles, a room full of energy and avid chants for an encore taking place, it appeared he got his answer.

Riding J. Cole’s coattails, Bas doesn’t shy away from the spotlight at a sold-out Roxy Theatre

BasBy Joseph Gray //

Bas with Cozz //
The Roxy Theatre – West Hollywood, CA
June 15th, 2016 //

The expectations for a hip-hop protégé have always been unfair and lofty. Fans often hope the pupil has soaked up just enough of the mentor’s know-how and creativity while also craving different risks and a new wrinkle to the story that has captivated their attention. Nevertheless, the game is not based on sympathy. And lucky for Bas, the Queens, N.Y.-raised rapper signed to J. Cole’s Dreamville Records imprint, reveling in self-awareness with rangy detail appears to be his greatest attribute.

For every apprentice that becomes Snoop Dogg under Dr. Dre’s wings, there are countless contemporaries that go the way of Jay Z’s Memphis Bleek. The second-in-charge star vs. the promising and hungry upstart who never quite materializes commercially. Where Bas (born Abbas Hamad) eventually lands aside North Carolina’s prodigal son still remains to be seen. However, after carrying his mindful thoughts in a workmanlike fashion into a sold-out Roxy Theatre last Wednesday in LA, it’s clear that the 29-year-old emcee has no plans of letting his inebriation with success — and its subsequent effects — stagger his straight-lined momentum.

There’s unrelenting, surface-level music that you listen to in a hyped-up state while you’re on your way to the club, and then there’s music you listen to while you reflect on the ride home. Sonically, Bas, similar to J. Cole, is mostly backed by hypnotic, darker sounds peppered with bits of warmth and place his projects in line with his mentor. Be that as it may, his youthful admirers won’t let you believe there are many lulls in his journey.

Bas

From “Too High to Riot”, the pensive title track on the follow-up to his 2014 debut Last Winter, to the breezy “Clouds Never Get Old”, Bas’ ever-loyal “villains” showered their appreciation onto him for his personable showmanship — so much so that he was able to reverse the roles and play the fan during “Night Job” with the crowd reciting the verses verbatim as he let the microphone rest at his side.

Sporting a beard as burly as his physique and the portions of his subject matter, Bas is an adversely light-footed performer with lots of jumping, smiling and promises that his fans’ newly purchased vinyl would be signed before they left for the night. All of that, of course, was sandwiched between his unique storytelling.

Every good story deserves a few surprises, though, and Bas was more than happy to keep up with tradition as some of his running mates and friends were also at the diminutive venue. London electronic quartet The Hics provided some soulful pleasantry to Bas’ inner battles. Additionally, the Dreamville crew’s veteran, Omen, delighted the audience with “48 Laws”, his standout track from the label’s 2015 compilation Revenge of the Dreamers II before Cozz, the South Central rapper also signed to Dreamville who performed his own opening set at The Roxy, re-appeared alongside Bas to continue building on his raw, growing confidence with his notable verse on the spirited “Tabs”.

Where the demands of being next up naturally weigh the most, Bas seemingly welcomed the opportunity to improve and chase history in front of the disbelievers and fellow dreamers. His “Too High to Riot Tour” stands as a chance for him to move the scope beyond just “making it” and inward toward everything, from life’s ills to racial injustice and an overall celebration of life through his eyes. If the chants for an encore during the LA stop on his nationwide tour were any indication, he’ll have some devoted fans supporting him as he continues to grow.

Young Thug isn’t afraid to do things his own way

Young ThugBy Joseph Gray //

Young Thug with Rich The Kid, Lil Yachty, Migos //
The Fonda Theatre – Los Angeles
May 16th, 2016 //

Whenever I have been asked about Young Thug, it’s usually been prefaced with “I don’t know why …” or “for some odd reason …” before conceding that I enjoy his music.

Oft-inaudible lyrics. A wardrobe that includes as many free-flowing feather blouses as it does jerseys. These characteristics, of course, don’t make up what most hip-hop fans have come to expect from our fabled stars.

But Young Thug (born Jeffrey Lamar Williams) wouldn’t have it any other way. Managing to toe a stylistic line of convoluted brilliance, Atlanta’s 23-year-old cult hero remains an enigma with lofty pop-star expectations to meet. And they don’t appear to be far from a face-off.

Young Thug’s signature shrilling voice, enveloped with adlibbing squeaks and crazed barks, sounds almost absurd on the surface — until it isn’t. As he manipulates music’s interior over darker, bruising-yet-patient beats with a warm and swift flow, he has seemingly settled into a pace where the melodies will put an ironclad grip on your interest — and it should. Whether you understand everything or not, you’re likely to listen more intently.

A sold-out room full of devotees at The Fonda Theatre last Monday weren’t afraid to admit that and much more during the LA stop of his Hy!£UN35 (HiTunes) Tour, named after his much-anticipated Atlantic Records debut album, which still doesn’t have a release date.

Young Thug

“Can you pleeeease go to the side of the stage and steal us water? I can see some right there. Pleeeeease?”

Pleading front-row attendees, arriving at The Fonda by mid-afternoon for a headliner who wouldn’t descend upon the stage until closer to midnight, were extremely dehydrated and fatigued. They also were hell-bent on maintaining a prime spot for Young Thug’s psychedelic rodeo, willing to take — with the help of those working in the photo pit, including myself — from the stash of stage accessories for the well-liked openers. Among those were Atlanta-area upstarts Rich The Kid, Lil Yachty and a surprise guest appearance from the always juiced-up Migos. All of which would hurl more than enough water and raucous energy their way.

With water bottles in tow to complement dampened clothing, the crowd’s soaked anticipation and “Thugger!” chants would soon be rewarded when the venue’s large curtains were raised to reveal cutouts of Michael Jackson and Prince. And then there, sandwiched onstage between the cardboard iconic figures, would be their unapologetic version of a musical prodigy.

Fresh off releasing the latest — and final — installment of his Slime Season mixtape trilogy, Young Thug took his place on the stage. Arriving in a white blouse, multicolored sequined jacket, dark shades, a polka-dot head scarf and remarkably slim, golden pants, he aligned such a rangy and vibrant uniform with his performance.

There wouldn’t be any towering LED lights, stunts or stage diving. However, Young Thug, who for the majority of his roughly hour-long set played the lone wolf, delighted the crowd with his animated and bright delivery while running through thundering Slime Season 3 favorites like “With Them”, “Digits” and “Slime Shit”. The audience, ranging from high school seniors to seasoned workers likely with mortgages, strikingly recited every uncanny, controversial lyric and Ric Flair-esque “Woo!” like they had been analyzing them for years.

Young Thug

Young Thug’s glossy sleeves weren’t without surprises in the lining, though. While returning to breakthrough hits like “Stoner” and “Hookah”, Young Thug welcomed collaborator Tyga, who provided a jolt to remind us of the moments he had before TMZ’s cameras arguably took the rest of them. Trinidad James and Yo Gotti also made appearances, the latter performing his megahit “Down in the DM” before the lighting started to dim.

“Give me more lights, give me more lights, give me more lights,” stage conductor Young Thug harmonized with a lighthearted and seemingly impromptu carol while briefly heading to his utopia. With his back momentarily turned to the camera-phone flash before the lighting guys again joined the party, Atlanta’s favorite outlander appeared to just take a moment. The point in time could have been one of appreciation or something else on a completely different side of the pendulum. That ambiguity is what seems to keep Young Thug and his pundits going.

What’s next? Last Monday, it was the nostalgic ballad “Worth It” ahead of crossover bangers “Best Friend” and “Lifestyle” to accentuate what appears to be an ascent in the making.

As far as the future? Only Young Thug knows and that appears to be perfectly alright with him and his fans.

Adrian Younge turns up the heat in his hometown

Adrian YoungeBy Joseph Gray //

Adrian Younge with No I.D., Joey Dosik //
Del Monte Speakeasy – Venice, CA
April 5th, 2016 //

Adrian Younge is a dreamer. The Los Angeles-bred composer and multi-instrumentalist, however, is a fantasizer with an insane workman-like approach to match, with the result being a rare know-how that makes his raw, vintage music fit to score a climatic Pam Grier roundhouse kick from the 70’s still sound refreshing today. An ageless pallet, colored with everything from psychedelic classics to bulldozing funk, was on full display last Tuesday for Younge’s first hometown show of the year.

“I didn’t know it was going to be this hot in here,” quipped Younge, whose bow tie would become unhinged like much of his sleek, prom-like attire as he moved between bass guitar, piano and saxophone in his lightly-tinted glasses and velvet, gold-tipped shoes. Nevertheless, a diligent Younge and his equally chic band, Venice Dawn, would manage to create dauntless cool in the sweltering Del Monte Speakeasy next door to Venice Beach.

Younge followed easygoing ballads from vocalist Joey Dosik and a special DJ set by No I.D. as part of Red Bull’s Sound Select series. No I.D., the legendary Chicago producer and Def Jam EVP, set the tone for the night with countless goodies for all of the cratediggers in attendance. Seamlessly transporting the crowd through a Studio 54-meets-Blaxploitation vortex, featuring everything from Jean Carn’s and Dexter Wansel’s cool jazz to the reggae funk of Third World, he handed Younge and company a swaying crowd that was ready to groove.

Adrian Younge

Backed by an accomplished band equipped with flutes, Italian-influenced garb and guitarists savoring wine, beer and crowd-pleasing dance moves, Younge was more than happy to oblige with the whistling bass of “Panic Struck” from his joint project with Souls of Mischief as well as “Sirens”, his menacing 2012 hit that hip-hop mogul Jay Z sampled a year later on his Magna Carta Holy Grail track “Picasso Baby”. These delightful appetizers surrounded Younge’s latest studio album Something About April II, the evening’s main course of theatrical love.

“Sittin’ by the radio, the sky is crying” pleaded Venice Dawn’s talented vocal leader Loren Oden, who simultaneously petitioned us to expose our feelings and ears to the aesthetics of April II‘s special sound. These songs, arranged by Younge, gently transitioned from a gritty backdrop to daydreaming warmth before tangling in punishing, futuristic strings and drums, with the odyssey leaving the jam-packed venue as excited as they were appreciative of these handcrafted melodies.

“Memories of War”, coupled with “Psalms”, provided the scene for everything that makes April II a badass record, with Younge and his sweat-drenched bandmates doubled over to the ground by the end of his hour-long set. Greatness demands a lot, and Younge seems hell-bent on doing everything possible to ensure his genius analog vision remains intact.

Stormzy shows no fear in his LA debut at The Echo

StormzyPhotos by Brian Doyle // Written by Joseph Gray //

Stormzy with Lizzo, Kauf //
The Echo – Los Angeles
March 23rd, 2016 //

As big-eyed with appreciation as he was when his authoritative voice and frenzied intensity were being applied, Stormzy (born Michael Omari), the towering South London emcee, took his headlining tour to The Echo for its Los Angeles debut last Wednesday night. In a city often defined for its laid-back demeanor, such indifference was absent from the packed room as the budding sensation of grime, UK’s darker fusion of garage, hip-hop and dancehall, performed under the venue’s dim lights after alternative hip-hop artist Lizzo and LA electronic duo Kauf kicked things off.

A fiery congregation chanted lyric after lyric from Stormzy’s catalog before he even took the stage as part of Red Bull’s Sound Select series. Once Stormzy did, wrapped in a grey adidas sweat suit and camera flash, he elevated an energized crew that was full of life, flexing his muscle for hundreds of jumping spectators with thunderous tracks like “Standard” before briefly slowing the tempo during “10 Minutes”, a determined and sharp memo about what sets him apart from his rapping counterparts over the soulful score of The Game’s “100”.

However, that break in tempo would be short-lived, as the fourth quarter of his hour-long set introduced his huge, pulsating freestyle anthems. A now-shirtless Stormzy, fully entrenched in sweat and his element, madly ran through catchy fan favorites like “Know Me From” and “Shut Up”. How can you be better than Stormzy? In roaring unison with his supporters, new and old, he simply told his doubters to “shut up!” — fearless advice from the 22-year-old that is becoming harder to ignore with each one of his successful tour stops across the U.S.