New York’s Public Theater sits along Lafayette Street, an easily forgettable thoroughfare.
As the grid of Midtown slowly peels away to Lower Manhattan’s tangled, arterial web of vendor-lined mainways and cobblestone side streets, Lafayette gashes its way from City Hall to Cooper Union, nary a care given for its neighboring Broadway or East Village’s lower numbered avenues. “F*ck you,” it screams, probably in some shrill, nasally soprano, a boroughs accent becoming harder to find as the sh*tbirds (like this author) move from places like Strongsville and Scranton to occupy its former warehouses, tenements and brownstone walk-ups. It elongates the “you,” holding it out like a balloon deflating. It’s quarrelsome and contentious–try having to live in Broadway’s legendary shadow.
But the Public Theater–Lafayette’s cool with it. The distinguished, 158-year-old building’s columned front can be reached from the smooth slatted stairs leading to the double doors that freckle its face. Walk inside, become engulfed by its high-ceilinged lobby, but make sure it inevitably spits you up to its slightly congested second floor where you can find the Public’s Anspacher Theater.
If, by chance, you remembered Lafayette and you schlepped its several blocks to its Public Theater on the night of Tuesday, May 13, you would’ve seen The Roots perform their eleventh studio album, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin, for a packed house.
Well, sort of.
The penis, and vagina, and heart-shaped balloons fell from the ceiling right around the point when the red floor lights began flickering and a crackhead thin dancer/motion artist–surrounded on three sides by the audience–began freaking out.
To say that The Roots’ premiere of their new album was unconventional would be neither over or understatement. They definitely played the album: “Tomorrow,” the album’s second single, closed out the set, spiraling high into the rafters like evaporating rain and Black Thought’s spoken-word introduction and interludes had to have contained certain songs’ lyrics.
The thing is, you couldn’t tell when one song began and others ended, or what was album material and what wasn’t. Black Thought, shrouded in a baggy hoody, appeared intermittently throughout the entire performance to bark prophecies like, “N*ggas! Jews! Crackas! If there’s a Hell below… Then we’re all gonna go!” ?uestlove literally oversaw the four (or was it five?) piece Metropolis Ensemble from atop a black-boxed pyramid that rose steadily above the floor and held his DJ equipment and drum set. Sampling artist Jeremy Ellis provided certain tracks with electronic noodling fests, which was met by the crowd’s applause each time. And there was a didgeridoo, no sh*t (provided by Craig S. Harris).
So it wasn’t a traditional playing of the album, but that befits what The Roots do. Without getting into too much of the nitty-gritty of …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin (Tuesday night was really my first “complete” listen), the performance’s program explains the LP as “rais[ing] a series of challenges to its listeners: What is hip-hop, anyway? What does it sound like, and why? What is it supposed to accomplish?” Hence, the didgeridoo.
If going by The Roots’ performance, Hip-Hop sounds like a lot of things, but its version of Hip-Hop oftentimes becomes too confusing and convoluted in its own idea of imagery. It was hard to follow along with Black Thought’s ramblings and the symbolism of the performance’s random dancers and actors. But that’s okay. It was entertaining, thought-provoking (“okay, what does this right here all mean?”) and definitely entertaining–Captain Kirk Douglas’ near-set-ending guitar solo, FTW.
It was sort of a listening party, but it wasn’t. It was better.
Album listening events and parties are a dime a dozen here in New York City, and really they’re nothing more than industry-insider schmooze-fests and souped-up happy hours with open bars (which are always welcomed, by the way).
They’re not as interesting or glamorous as friends might think, but again: open bars are always welcomed. Free booze aside, Hip-Hop labels and artists should look at what The Roots have done with this two-night performance at The Public Theater as a way in which they can reinvigorate the idea of an album release or listening party. It was somewhat high-minded and bourgie, as The Roots are increasingly fond of presenting their work, but the fact that it ditched the status quo for listening events should be applauded.
But throwing a successful listening party doesn’t require Roots-level money and thought. Mac Miller had a great shindig for his Watching Movies With The Sound Off LP last June at the West Village’s IFC Theater. Supplying a 6-year-old’s catering dream by supplying endless amounts of Joe’s of Carmine pizza (!!), candy and soda, Mac rented out an entire theater and screened a nature film his buddy made that synced up perfectly with the album. Because guests were literally watching a movie, the whole thing dissuaded people from being the asshole who illuminates the pitch-black theater with his/her iPhone, so all attention was on the music and the sea turtle that was on the screen*.
In both cases it wasn’t a party people were attending, despite the fact they were social gatherings. More or less they were listening events, emphasizing the work they were promoting, which in the end causes two things: 1) it makes me want to know more about the music because that’s what was being forced on me and 2) it causes me to actually remember the event itself, which leads to posts like these.
What happened off Lafayette Street at the Public Theater on Tuesday, May 13 was a good idea, and I’m not talking about the music.
* — Long story short, but the nature doc was all about a baby sea turtle making its way from hatching out to the ocean without getting eaten or killed or whatever. Listen to WMWTSO and you’ll know why the thing was such a buzzkill. I brought a date with me and we were both kind of low afterwards.