After two decades in the rap game, Talib Kweli is still fighting for what he believes in

Talib KweliBy Joseph Gray & Josh Herwitt //

Talib Kweli with Styles P, K’Valentine //
Belasco Theater – Los Angeles
January 19th, 2017 //

Talib Kweli has a lot to say.

Though he has often made headlines by feuding with critics, internet trolls and celebrities (even Kiss’ Gene Simmons of all people) on Twitter, the 41-year-old Brooklyn emcee is fine with governing the inconvenient space. Hell, his social-media presence, ripe with over one million Twitter followers, surely helped him garner an invitation — alongside a host of your favorite rappers — to visit The White House last year and discuss the best ways of reforming the criminal justice system with former President Barack Obama.

Kweli may never ride his social-media notoriety to Billboard‘s Hot 100 mountaintop like the meme-assisted Migos did with “Bad and Boujee” or video craze-pushed Rae Sremmurd with “Black Beatles”, but the veteran technician boasts an impressive rap résumé that has been built on razor-sharp lyricism and politically insightful artsy, both of which have dazzled so many hip-hop purists long before the genre overwhelmingly permeated the mainstream.

The reward for Kweli, despite never producing that big record to lift him to super stardom, is a loyal group of fans. Last Thursday in LA, many of them piled into the Belasco Theater’s lower bowl as part of “The Seven Tour” as Kweli made a point of acknowledging their longstanding love for him and hip-hop, even when it wasn’t the popular thing to do.

Talib Kweli & Anderson .Paak


Talib Kweli with Anderson .Paak

Hitting the stage with plenty of positivity, thought provocation and several surprises, Kweli punctuated a rewind of his classic Black Star work with Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) with “Definition” before raising fists and excitement with “Move Somethin'” and “The Blast”, two organic standouts from Reflection Eternal, the longstanding side project that he formed with Cincinnati rapper/producer Hi-Tek two decades ago. With the diverse crowd at The Belasco digging his collaborative work, Kweli reminded us there was more goodness to come in the form of his forthcoming project with Styles P called The Seven (the only strange part was the fact that the duo didn’t perform any songs together at the show).

Styles P, the well-respected member of The Lox and Kweli’s latest partner in crime, came on just prior to his tourmate’s hour-long set, donning a backpack full of his signature hard and vivid rhymes but missing just one thing: a shot of Rémy Martin. After a number of requests, that too made its way to the stage, much to the delight of the crowd.

Now whole and indebted, Styles P got the party started by climbing over the front barricade into a mob of concertgoers as the self-proclaimed gangster and gentleman also became the people’s champion. He assured us, despite the changing and chaotic political climate, we would prevail (“We Gonna Make It”), get high (“Good Times”), spend money (“B.M.F.”) and remember the same guy who went against hip-hop titans like Diddy and Jay Z and came out without a major chink in his armor (“What Else You Need to Know”).

While Styles P and special guest K’Valentine — the curvy Chicago rapstress who used her gifted flow to speak out against Chi-Raq and her city’s highly publicized problem with gun violence — were well-enjoyed, Kweli turned to some more of his friends for a stronger jolt. Playing to the crowd with a black Lakers cap, he called Naughty By Nature’s Treach up for some feel-good throwback hits before Southern California’s do-it-all wunderkind Anderson .Paak punched the building full of unbridled energy with “Come Down” from his Grammy-nominated album Malibu.

Talib Kweli

While the vibes were free-flowing, Kweli made sure his show would continue to lean left on the eve of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration. Diverging from his material with some social dialogue, he took his good friend and “Get ‘Em High” collaborator Kanye West, actor and comedian Steve Harvey and others to task for being “crazy” enough to set foot next to President Trump.

“Trump can’t understand the black scholar. We can run the ball but can’t run the office,” he said in response to Trump’s recent meetings with prominent black entertainers like West and athletes such as former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and NFL legend Jim Brown.

With the laid-back atmosphere abruptly being replaced by the reality of continued racial and social issues in the U.S., Kweli walked off the stage. But like much of his career, he isn’t one to shy away from a fight.

Instead, he reappeared after encore chants to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” as the backdrop of the famous song led into the determined “Get By”, still Kweli’s biggest hit that felt even larger amid the clapping crowd. On this night, whether it was convenient or not, the man with a lot to say made sure to give us a whole lot to think about.

After touring with Sia, AlunaGeorge have never been more well-suited to succeed than now

AlunaGeorgeBy Josh Herwitt //

Red Bull Sound Select – 30 Days in LA: AlunaGeorge with Xavier Omär //
Belasco Theater – Los Angeles
November 22nd, 2016 //

If you haven’t heard of AlunaGeorge, there’s a good chance you’ve probably heard them on the radio and just didn’t know. But it probably wasn’t one of their own songs that you heard. Nope, it was more than likely from another English electronic duo by the name of Disclosure.

For plenty, Disclosure’s 2013 hit “White Noise” off their debut LP Settle was the first exposure they had to the namesake of vocalist/songwriter Aluna Francis and producer/instrumentalist George Reid. And though their very first single “You Know You Like It” reached as high as No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 thanks in part to DJ Snake’s remix for “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” boosting the song’s popularity, AlunaGeorge had yet to have a bonafide pop song in their arsenal until brothers Howard and Guy Lawrence enlisted Francis’ pipes a few years ago.

Since then, Francis and Reid together have released two full-length albums, including most recently I Remember as the follow-up to 2013’s initial offering Body Music. While their latest studio effort sees them expanding horizons with some guest spots — something they didn’t endeavor on Body Music — from New Orleans-born rapper Pell, Chinese-American electronic musician/singer ZHU and Jamaican dancehall emcee Popcaan on lead single “I’m in Control”, the loudest roar from the healthy crowd at LA’s Belasco Theater last Tuesday came when they dropped the popular Disclosure track toward the middle of their hour-long performance.

AlunaGeorge

Despite the show being scheduled right before a holiday weekend, it was still billed as one of the premier events for Red Bull Sound Select’s 30 Days in LA series this month and rightfully so. AlunaGeorge, in fact, were coming off their most important string of dates having served as one of two opening acts (the other being Miguel) on the North American leg of Sia’s 2016 arena tour. So, after gracing the stage at the world-famous Hollywood Bowl this fall, Francis and Reid had no reason to be intimidated by the Belasco’s main theater room. If anything, it only gave them the freedom to showcase some of their songs under a new and different light.

As we reached the midway point of their set with back-to-back singles from I Remember (the title track and “My Blood”), AlunaGeorge entered unchartered territory as they welcomed Pell and a three-piece brass band onstage to help them perform “Full Swing” live for the first time. It was a fitting way to wrap up a tour after months and months of both festival dates and club gigs all around the world, stretching the scope of electronic music with merely an element or two of surprise sprinkled into the equation. Because on this night, whether many attendees had heard of them or not, AlunaGeorge did everything they could to help them not forget.

Setlist:
Mediator
Your Drums, Your Love
I’m in Control
Automatic (ZHU cover)
White Noise (Disclosure cover)
My Blood
I Remember
Full Swing (with Pell) (with brass section)
Heartbreak Horizon (with brass section)
Not Above Love (with brass section)
Hold Your Head High
Mean What I Mean
You Know You Like It

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.