Seeing white 20-somethings rapping along to “these niggas won’t hold me back” on “Homage,” was just discomfiting.
(Photos: Peter Hutchins)
A few songs into his headlining set at The Anthem, D.C.’s new concert venue and one of the anchors of major development along the wharf, Tyler, The Creator looked into the packed crowd and couldn’t believe his eyes. He joked about how dark a city D.C. is, and how this audience has had the most black faces per capita on his entire tour. Even with that unscientific claim, this still felt like a predominantly white crowd.
Tyler said his first time performing in D.C. was at a smaller venue, the 9:30 Club, but that recollection was incorrect. The first time I saw Tyler perform in the area was with the original Odd Future crew on Valentine’s Day in 2011. This was a few days after the infamous video for “Yonkers” had hit YouTube and a few months before the release of his second album, Goblin. It was at an even smaller venue, U Street Music Hall, with an audience split down the middle between white hipsters looking for an empty spot on the bandwagon and angry black youths living vicariously through Tyler’s shock rap. I vividly recall seeing a stocky black kid and a scrawny white dude bump into each other forcefully in the pit and thinking there was going to be violence, but the two just started cookin’ like Lil B, acting out the Based equivalent of the conciliatory peace dance seen in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video.
The show at The Anthem was significantly larger, with Tyler headlining solo. The only Odd Future crew member left at the show, Taco, opened with a DJ set to get the crowd ready. Taco has long filled this position at Tyler’s live shows, but it’s still surprising to see how adept he is at catering to the diverse taste of Tyler’s fan base. The clear highlight of his set was dropping Goldlink’s modern classic “Crew” after giving the D.C. native artist a call on stage, but it was another song choice that proved the most fascinating. Taco played Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness” and the pocket of youths around me lost their collective minds, one proudly exclaiming “what a throwback!”
Moments later, while we waited for Vince Staples to go on, Clipse’s seminal “Keys Open Doors” came over the speakers, but that same group of youths was too busy lamenting people who cop Yeezy clothing online but don’t actually care about streetwear. It was eye-opening to recognize I was surrounded by people for whom 2010 was essentially classic rock and 2006 was practically prehistoric. I’m not the first 30-something to feel out of place at a show geared towards 20-year olds, but the disconnect with the crowd wasn’t purely generational, but racial.
Staples’ stirring but schizophrenic set proved this. The last time I saw Vince, he opened for Earl Sweatshirt in 2013, debuting new songs off the unreleased Shyne Coldchain II mixtape. He was still scrappy, largely rapping over jagged, haunting boom bap beats, with an aesthetic somewhere between John Carpenter and Ice Cube. As an MC, he’s only grown more mature and assured, but a majority of the songs he played off last year’s Big Fish Theory trade in No ID’s spooky soul samples for Detroit techno and EDM instrumentals. It’s made his live show more raucous, but also challenging in a curious way.
With a bank of monitors like “Watchmen”’s Ozymandius behind him playing a frightening video installation full of serrated remixes depicting news clips and dystopian imagery, Staples rapped with clarity and intensity, while much of his audience just waited for the drop. Many of the new songs have beats and breakdowns designed to make kids lose their shit, but the verses are so insular and possessed of difficult truths exclusive to a young black experience. The white kids had no problem jumping up and down for “BagBak” and “Big Fish”, but when he enticed them to rap along to the refrain “I ain’t never ran from nothing but the police” from Summertime ‘06’s “Norf Norf,” the realness of his lived experience was immediately co-opted by college kids with no frame of reference for that worldview.
Obviously, this is not a new phenomenon in rap music, but seeing white 20-somethings rapping along to “these niggas won’t hold me back” on “Homage,” was just discomfiting. Vince has evolved into something of a warrior poet, a fierce prognosticator of post-apocalyptic gangsta rap, so it’s difficult to tell if his pivot into electronic sounds more closely associated with party music isn’t a purposeful feint. All I can say for sure is that it was like being at the most awkward social gathering ever.
Tyler’s set, by contrast, was considerably more unifying. With a set list largely comprised of cuts from his latest release, Scum Fuck Flower Boy, Tyler’s new sound is more uplifting and aspirational, with a positive, soul bearing energy only hinted at in earlier albums. He’s also grown into a confident performer, bantering with the crowd smoothly while sequencing in older tracks at just the right moments. When he had to dole out gems from his earlier, “problematic” years, he’d largely let the crowd rap the lyrics that used to get him into hot water. He joked that he didn’t want to say a lot of that stuff anymore but was fine if the crowd wanted to have fun with it.
It was nice to hear Goblin tracks like “She”, which wouldn’t sound entirely out of place with the new material, or “48” off of Wolf, but the highlights were all the newer songs. It was clear Tyler was really proud of what he had made, emphatically rapping new song “Flute” over the instrumental from Jay-Z’s “4:44.” Full throated crowd sing-a-longs during “911 / Mr. Lonely” and set closer “See You Again” made the near capacity venue feel like the field at a summer festival, expanding the walls of the building with passionate melodies and sun-drenched lyrics. Perhaps the most fascinating thing, however, was how Tyler’s musings about his bisexuality were slipped into the songs treated the most like enthusiastic bangers.
“Garden Shed,” a deeply personal song about coming out, was performed like a raucous stomper, with a whole crowd screaming “I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004” on “I Ain’t Got Time” and “I’m looking for ‘95 Leo” on “Who Dat Boy.” It doesn’t exactly excuse the internalized homophobia of his early work, but it really highlights the evolution both his sound and his fan base has experienced in less than a decade. The show’s biggest tell that Tyler has grown into a different artist wasn’t in any of the songs, but rather a random piece of crowd banter.
See, most of us had to stand in a several block long line for more than an hour before ever getting inside the venue, so by the time Tyler came on we’d been on our feet for roughly the length of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Tyler looked up at the audience members smart enough to be leaning on bannisters up in the balcony, remarking how much more chill and comfortable they looked. “I’m getting older,” he said, in a way that made it clear he admired that level of self-honesty. He’s not the kid who would be losing his mind in the front row anymore, and honestly, neither am I.