The current A$AP Mob, Schoolboy Q, and Danny Brown tour offers a stark contrast to the clashing hip-hop collectives of the 1990s. Today’s relationship between East Coast and West Coast hip-hop is no Biggie-Tupac, taste-defining argument. Harlem’s A$AP Mob, led by self-labeled “pretty boy” A$AP Rocky, actually collaborates with L.A. Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) artists, including rappers like Schoolboy Q and Kendrick Lamar. Danny Brown, the, hard-nosed spitfire lyricist, the dude from Detroit with the goofy hair and an unnaturally long tongue, is the always-in-a-good-mood wildcard whose Detroit roots split the difference between the coasts.
Why are today’s hip-hop collectives so friendly? Even when hip-hop or R&B artists get into a conflict these days, the stakes are laughably low. Drake and Chris Brown come across like two idiots pining for a more intelligent pop star like Rihanna; the fact that we give either of their misogynistic, violent outbursts the time of day is disturbing in itself. Today’s up-and-coming hip-hop artists spit at each other in the studio, not on the street.
Well, mostly. The A$AP Mob infamously went into this year’s SXSW crowd and threw punches in response to unyielding hecklers throwing things onstage. Moreover, Rocky was recently arrested in New York after a verbal dispute. Yet, if the first night of the tour, September 21st at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel in Providence, RI, was any indication, Rocky and his Mob have changed. I’m not talking about the amount of times Rocky told the crowd that he and his friends were “misunderstood youth” (three, by my count). I’m talking about when Rocky actually broke up a fight in the crowd from onstage, telling the audience that his shows are all about peace and love. Clearly, he’s leading by example.
The friendliness leaks into the most important part: the music. Ultimately, the spirit of this three-way tour is collaboration. Undeniably, the best moment of the three-hour night was when Q came onstage to join Rocky for song-of-the-year contender “Hands on the Wheel”.
Beyond that moment, the A$AP Mob brought enough energy to fill their 90-minute set, performing everything you’d expect from their catalogue and when they ended with “Peso”, the crowd went only slightly more nuts than they did “Goldie”. Apparently, Rocky and his mob did “Palace” for the first time ever. It got some arms waving, to say the least.
My personal favorite was the act allotted only thirty minutes of set time: Danny Brown. One of the best sets I saw at this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival, a live Danny Brown show offers something you don’t normally experience in today’s hip-hop concerts: the ability to hear the lyrics above the DJ. While Brown’s lyrics essentially focus on two unmentionable topics (I’ll just mention them: smoking weed and cunnilingus), his playfulness and unexpected references, from SpongeBob to Basquiat, make him today’s quintessential weirdo rapper. While artists like Nicki Minaj have already made this kind of weirdness mainstream, or at least acceptable, Danny seems less intentionally weird, but rather just himself.
Schoolboy Q brought some great energy (and some apparently great weed) onstage, performing “Sacrilegous” and other highlights from this year’s Habits & Contradictions, such as “There He Go”, and “Blessed”. He also gave his fellow TDE member Kendrick Lamar a shout out by performing Lamar’s best song, “A.D.H.D.”. If there’s one critique of Q’s performance in Providence, it’s the same thing that bothered me about Kendrick’s Pitchfork set this year: he can get really preachy. Whereas Brown, an artist in his thirties who has also been through hell to get where he is, adapts a no-nonsense attitude (he literally has a song called “Scrap or Die”, referring to his job as a scrap-metal worker in Detroit), guys like Q and Lamar just…talk, almost as if they’re pining for sympathy. And while a song like “Blessed” has a great beat and sports some classic Q and Kendrick delivery, its chorus is undeniably cliché. While Q and Lamar clearly have raw talent, I’m not entirely sold on them as live performers or artists in general.
Overall, however, to see artists that might have been rivals 20 years ago actually come together today is refreshing and suggests that the music world might blend into one big, happy mush, both within and among genres. When Rocky asked his DJ to play the Mob some exit music, the DJ chose The Stooges’ classic “I Wanna Be Your Dog” as the Mob jumped around onstage. Punks, misunderstood youth, or whatever you want to call them: maybe these artists have grown up.
Jordan Mainzer is a student of History and Hispanic Studies at Brown University. In September, he reviewed David Byrne’s book How Music Works. He is the editor of art, architecture, and design blog DRA and was recently featured on the blog One Week One Band writing about St. Vincent. He was also the film critic for Vail, CO tourist magazine KidStuff at age 6, which perhaps remains his greatest accomplishment.