In between the salad and the main course, Nardwuar asked me “So, who do you think has been the standout this year? Who will walk away as the ‘it’ guy?” Since this was Saturday night and most artists had already performed at least once or twice on the various SXSW stages, the answer was clear to me.
“I think Trinidad will walk away ahead and maybe a few others like Two9 will gain a lot of buzz,” I responded. “But there are no real standouts because most of these guys got upstaged by older artists.” At least that’s my fan’s perspective based off the different sets I watched. Sure, Joey BadA$$ showed he’s making strides on stage, Kevin Gates and IamSu! made us happy for supporting their music and A$AP Ferg and his rowdy crew made an impression with their energy. Still, there wasn’t a young guy who straight blew me away or burned his name into my mind after watching him tear down his set, à la Kendrick in 2011, Yelawolf in 2010, etc.
At the Mass Appeal showcase on Friday, going to the open deck to smoke a couple of times was the only thing that jolted my system enough to make it through long, dreary performances by Rockie Fresh and Roc Marciano, two artists whose music I find entertaining but the disparity between the tunes and their stage show is too big to be overlooked. That’s not to single them out because a whole lot of their young counterparts are guilty of the same. Instead of showmanship, they settle for bopping from side-to-side on stage while making standard calls for audiences to put their hands in the air. There are those that bring a hoard of friends and homies on stage or strategically place them front and center, both used to provide a false sense of frenzy.
Compare the aforementioned two to the guy who followed them – Bun B. Granted, Bun has two decades in the game and respect, no, reverence reserved only for the deified. For roughly 20 minutes, the king from Port Arthur worked the crowd like a preacher at a revival, moving from one classic cut to the next. Perched from the upper level of the Austin Music Hall, the view of the crowd of a couple thousand with index and pinkie fingers pointing skyward, arms waving in unison as Bun commanded they “throw their horns up” was a sight to behold.
Bun didn’t overexert himself by any means. Actually, he employed a hypeman to work opposite sides of the stage as he moved back and forth. The advantage Bun has is a backpocket bulging with hits, well-known numbers that fans across several generations know well. I’d place him on the same shelf with the likes of Kanye, Jay, Snoop, Busta Rhymes and Eminem as artists who have enough standout songs to carry them for an hour-long performance.
Do younger artists not have big songs? Sure. But one or two commercial singles (if that) and a few mixtape bangers won’t ever carry a half-hour performance. With that in mind, the young guys are being placed in front of large festival crowds armed with pop guns when a cannon’s a better fit for the situation. For all their hype and praise for their work on wax, younger artists aren’t being allowed the time needed to mature into masters of ceremonies.
What they could use is a spot in the crowd to watch a guy like Mystikal. Let the record show that I’ve never really given a shit about Mystikal, not even during the peak of his No Limit days. I don’t dislike him either. For him and Busta Rhymes, I have to use my “Baskin-Robbins rule.” If myself and a friend were to hit the ice cream shop with flavors and choices all on display, I wouldn’t deride their decision to pick cherries jubilee or tell them how much it sucked in comparison to almond fudge. Nope, they could eat theirs and be happy. So if you like Mystikal’s music, have all the Louisiana flavored tunes you choose.
After leaving Mass Appeal’s showcase, I slid over to Rocksmith’s stage to catch up with a couple of homies and that’s where I learned to like Mystikal. For 40 minutes, he ran through recognizable records – “The Man Right Chea” “Bouncin'”I Smell Smoke,”Danger” and more – while KLC backed him pulling DJ duties. He worked the stage and each song with a assorted mix of body movements, ad-libs, changes in his delivery and impromptu commands for KL to stop a beat so he could run a verse back and reiterate his words. There weren’t any lulls between songs as he took the time to poke fun at himself for “being away for six years” and thanking fans for supporting him throughout and using the song segues to set up the next number.
Even some of the lesser known tracks, both old and new, were made into fun experiences just because Mystikal managed to make them fun. To be 100% honest, the sexcapade “Short Story” wasn’t on my radar at all. Never heard it, never knew it even existed. But he made the song into a one-man show by rapping it acapella, doing half of the beat on his chest and utilizing his most well know instrument, his voice, to draw out certain words and lines within the X-rated rap. What was a song turned into something more like a homeboy sitting around telling you the most humorous of stories in an animated fashion. And that sums of his performance as a whole.
None of this means that Fresh, Marciano or any of the younger guys are lesser performers than their older counterparts. The way the music business rolls today requires that new artists are thrust onto big stages instead of being able to work out the kinks and earn their stripes on the chitlin circuit. It’s not their fault, so much as it just is. It’s on them to study stage performance, refine theirs – and the music – if they want to rap for the long run.
I guess I should explain crossing paths with Nardwuar. To close out SX, Def Jam invited a handful of media and artists to a dinner hosted by the label’s president Joie Manda. In a room full of interesting individuals, none was more engaging than the Human Serviette and we ended up seated beside each other. Even when he’s off, he’s still on so we talked music, encounters and all that jazz and, in typical Nardwuar fashion, every question was followed by another, which peppered the discussion for the entire night. He’s very sharp and friendly, showing no problem with playing along with a Twitter/IG joke I decided to pull once he left his glasses laying at the table.
I also told him how I bark on Crew members before they do interviews, telling them to research and “get their Nardwuar on.” Yeah, Nardwuar, you’re a noun and a verb around this piece. Doot doot!