Everything was rolling along nice and fine during Keyshia Cole’s show at the Paramount Theater in Oakland Sunday night when halfway though the set, to join Cole on “Let it Go,” who should grab a mic and emerge from the wings but… Lil’ Kim!
If the City of Oakland ever needs a fairly dependable—and loud—way to reenact the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, it should just let Lil’ Kim walk out onto the stage. The 3,000-seat theater went absolutely apeshit. Walls rattled. Fans rushed the aisles. For sixty seconds, it was uncontrolled mayhem, as if an violent act of nature was running its course. Then, with the song over, with a quick hug to Cole and a wave to the crowd, she was gone. Shit calmed down again.
Cole never quite had the crowd in her hands the way Lil’ Kim did, although not for lack of trying. Her nonstop choreography, her three wardrobe changes, her elaborate sets and gymnastic vocals all added up to an impressive display of hard work. But hard work alone is just that, and the sweat and energy Cole expels doesn’t cover up the fact that she’s touring on her weakest album yet. If Cole can get back to having classic material like “Love” and “I Should Have Cheated,” and if she can make performing those songs seem natural and effortless, she’ll be able to achieve her stated dream of headlining arenas instead of opening them—as she did the first two times I saw her, on tours with both R. Kelly and Lil’ Wayne. She’s got more talent than almost any other singer in R&B right now. She should have material to match.
After Lil’ Kim shook things up, a surprise guest visit by Too Short on “Didn’t I Tell You” was a welcome aftershock , and at the end of the set Cole took a few minutes to stop the music and thank her friends, family and fans in her old hometown for their support. She shouted out neighborhoods: “We got Murder Dubs in the house? You know I’m from Oakland when I say somethin’ like that.” It was a genuine moment, made more so at the end of a razzmatazz-filled spectacle. Then some dude took the mic and got the address of the afterparty wrong.
The-Dream is one of the greatest songwriters of the new century, and I’ve written about him a few times now. His records are brilliant in the way that early Prince records are brilliant (one of these days he will have his Purple Rain), and The-Dream’s hits for other people—“Single Ladies,” “Umbrella,” “Touch My Body”—need no introduction. But could he pull it off live, I wondered? Such is the post-ProTools landscape. I didn’t even know if the guy could sing on key.
Color me faithless. The-Dream was incredible live. Yes, he sang on key. More than that, he was simply electrifying to watch. He, too, talked openly to the crowd. Introducing “Falsetto,” a song about the noises one makes in bed, he instructed fans that “if y’all are sitting down for this song, then you’re getting’ old and you don’t know how to fuck.”
The night before the show, I drew up a set of dream Dream songs. My friend balked at “Purple Kisses,” and I felt redeemed that it was played. “Love vs. Money” also matched my expectations by being accompanied by guns fired in time to the intro’s gunshot sounds—a trick I’ve always wanted other bands to do—but died on the vine in the second verse after backup dancers interpreted a clock ticking down. Also: the first verse and the first verse only of “Sweat it Out,” rendered acapella.
The-Dream knows his hits. He interpolated both Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” at the end of “Nikki” and the Force M.D.s “Tender Love” at the end of “My Love.” He took his hat and glasses off and looked more like a completely different person than any other singer I know who takes their hat and glasses off. He swore often when talking about record executives choosing the wrong singles and his enthusiasm for the crowd’s support. His last song was “I Luv Your Girl,” and bearing witness to a theater of thousands of people singing its key line louder than any other line of the night was nothing short of incredible.
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Just six years ago in 2002, a completely mixed crowd at the Phoenix Theater, much older, lost their heads and loudly sang along to every line of “Life is… Too Short.” Last night, in the middle of Too Short’s headlining set, the classic guitar hook came in and… nothing. Kids just stood there.
Everyone knew Too Short would have legs—he’s always had determination beyond his peers—but it’s a miracle how long those legs have reached. While most rappers his age (he’s 41) can’t get beyond their past glories, Too Short holds a rare set of reins on the here and now. The sold-out crowd went wild for new hits like “Blow the Whistle” and verses from his collaborations with Kelis (“Bossy”) and T-Pain (“I’m in Love with a Stripper,” amending his verse with shout-outs to Petaluma) but then stood in dumbfounded silence at Short’s career-making 1987 anthem, “Freaky Tales.”
Appealing to a new generation is one thing, but commanding enough concrete attention to build a Berlin Wall to the past is a hustle of another color.
The vibe at the Phoenix was hot and the whole night felt good. All eyes were on this show, and increased security and police couldn’t stop people from having a great time—it’d be like trying to keep a congregation from praying in church.
The Pack, Short’s protégées, commanded the stage with a solid set. Young groups with four distinct personalities always hit, and they’ve got the trick down: there’s the backpack guy in purple and pink; the Usher-type sex symbol in sagging jeans, white tank top and shades; the basic G in a sports cap and T-shirt; and the perpetually smiling laid-back guy in dreads. Now that they’re 18, they’ve graduated from rapping about bikes to rapping about cars. Bets currently being taken on which one has the most successful solo career (a 15-to-2 that they’ll stay together as long as Souls of Mischief).
Whoever does the Pack’s production has hip-hop minimalism mastered: “Vans” was deliciously razor-thin, but some of the newer songs last night used spare, fluttering basslines in a way that hasn’t been touched since Z-Trip & Del’s “Dynasty” 12”.
Erk tha Jerk, who I went out of my way to see, had pretty unique songs but the unforgiving crowd wasn’t feelin’ it at all, yelled “you suck” and threw their water at him. Shame. And J-Stalin was good, with one major problem that he shared with Erk; both of them rapped over their own vocal tracks. Why do fans let performers get away with that?
I will beat this horse to a bloody pulp: rapping over your own vocal tracks is the weakest shit ever. It’s not hard at all to make instrumentals, and it’ll allow the opportunity to showcase your skills instead of being lazy and relying on prerecorded vocals. Anyone with me on this one?
Despite that, everything else about the show was great, and hopefully hip hop will continue to thrive around here. Kudos to the people swimming through dire straits to make it happen: D-Sharpe, DJ Amen, Noizemakers, and, as ever, Tom Gaffey and the Phoenix Theater.