Rap duo PRhyme hit the Fine Line stage Sunday night to perform classically minded boom-bap for a packed crowd of avid fans.
Combining the production work of former GangStarr producer DJ Premier and rapping from Detroit's Royce da 5'9", the battle-tinged lyrical rap performance provided the audience with exactly what they were looking for.
Slideshow: PRhyme Rock the Fine Line
Local rapper and Soul Tools affiliate Freez opened the night after an introduction from the label's own Toki Wright, powering through a number of newer tracks from his latest, Freez's Frozen French Freys, as well as some older cuts and unreleased material. With an attention to breath control few rappers can match, Freez proved his tightly constructed bars and self-assured stride stood alongside the nationally recognized headlining act. Combining personal material with quickly paced and tricky chop-rapping, the Illuminous 3 MC grabbed the audience's attention on performance ability alone.
Royce da 5'9" brought along fellow Detroit rapper Boldy James. His live persona barely reflected his recorded work's strengths, thanks to a lackluster performance anchored by backing tracks. He's been generously compared to Mobb Deep in album reviews, but his stage presence lacked the dynamics of his influences. Instead, he unconvincingly trudged his way through sub-par hooks and technical difficulties for a set that just passed the bar. For the stylistic callback to the mid-'90s, there needed to be an attention to delivery and a strength in writing that primarily wasn't there, and the set fell short.
At one point misconstrued by some as a Nas side project, Coney Island's Your Old Droog indeed captures the voicing and the line construction of Illmatic-era Queensbridge, and can convincingly replicate the style live. Intentionally seating his work next to New York's early-'90s heyday -- for instance, he remixed the second verse of "Bad to the Bone" with a beat callback to Raekwon's "Ice Cream" -- Your Old Droog at times fared well.
He shined when performing cuts from his online albums like his self-titled Soundcloud debut and last month's Kinison EP, but more than a few clunker lines stood out doubly so when held against the classic points of comparison. His references to Minnesota figures like Atmosphere (who was in the building for the show) and former Timberwolf Tom Gugliotta got big cheers, and in general the audience was rocking with Droog's vibe. He mostly hit the mark with his live show, but aligning himself so emphatically with the untouchable sounds of his predecessors set him up for the occasional unfavorable comparison.
When DJ Premier hit the stage to set up, cheers and "Preemo" chants went up through the audience. He essentially built the blueprint for raw, sample-driven East Coast hip-hop during his prime almost 25 years ago. The sound remains vivid today even as it has been recycled by himself and others. He scratched into the opening sounds of Royce's solo track "Hip-Hop" from 2004's Death Is Certain, one of his productions that catalyzed the duo's ongoing working relationship down the line. Then Premier introduced Royce, who stepped to the stage calmly and jumped right into his verse.
A particularly skilled live performer 15 years into his career, Royce upholds his battle-rap ties in terms of sheer stage energy, hitting every line with the precision of someone who understands the importance of the stage show. He worked through a range of material, from PRhyme tracks to a run of Slaughterhouse verses and some of his Bad Vs. Evil material from his albums with Eminem, applying the same sense of punchy delivery and gritty methodology throughout.
Royce highlighted the impetus behind the project, a desire to get back to gritty underground sounds that intentionally side-stepped mainstream definitions of rap music, throughout the set. "Fuck the radio, fuck the clubs. I'm a lyricist, I wanna do some lyrical shit," he said at one point, to big cheers. Intent on showcasing some of the old-school performance elements that they aim to represent, Royce let Premier do some of the talking with vinyl scratches that answered his spoken questions. Premier also took a section of the set to play some of the sources of classic hip-hop samples like Mobb Deep's "The Infamous," Nas's "NY State of Mind," and Notorious B.I.G.'s "10 Crack Commandments," spinning the original record (and occasionally reconstructing the beat live by switching between records) before revealing what famous song grabbed a portion of it.
The duo was very focused on the building blocks of traditional hip-hop, and their attention to the form made for a distinctive live show. Royce closed out after his hit first single "Boom" by sincerely thanking his fans for their support throughout the years. After taking time away from music to focus on sobriety, he expressed a genuine appreciation for those who stuck with his music in the interim, and the responsive audience was clearly fully supportive of his journey.
Personal Bias: I'm less enthralled by bars for bars' sake these days.
The Crowd: A surprising amount of '90s babies in the audience, according to Toki Wright's unofficial applause polling.
Overheard in the Crowd: "I'm mainly annoyed because now I have to actually wash this hoodie," said a young man after spilling his beer.
Random Notebook Dump: Never been the biggest fan of onstage pop quizzes: "How many people know about [insert rap artist here]?" Just play some music or something instead.
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