For any hip-hop artist nowadays, mastering the art of live performance is considerably difficult. Merely shouting one’s own verses over a prerecorded track does not make for a completely compelling hip-hop show. Part of what makes live music so captivating is the potential for the unexpected and the beauty of what results from that spontaneity. A rapper earns the title of “emcee,” or Master of Ceremonies, when he can convince the audience of the significance behind his words and inhabit those lyrics to help us understand why he wrote them and what they mean to him. Sharing that connection with a hip-hop performer is what truly distinguishes an unforgettable rap concert.
Last Friday night, Lupe Fiasco opened his “Steppin’ Lasers” world tour to a sold-out crowd in Bridges Auditorium. The atmosphere was undeniably electric as students from all 5Cs congested the aisles, climbed armrests and scrambled over each other in efforts to get closer to the stage. Openers Anthem and B.o.B. offered only a taste of what was expected—the masses had gathered to experience the world of Lupe Fiasco, a tremendously talented, 28-year-old, Chicago-born hip-hop artist known for his razor-sharp wordplay and impeccable song production.
At 10:45 p.m., to the tune of “Shining Down,” the first single off his upcoming LP, “Lasers,” Lupe took the stage to uproarious applause and excitement. Joining him on stage was a backing band significantly smaller than the seven-person outfit I had seen him perform with previously. To my disappointment, only his drummer, a new guitarist, and a DJ played with him last Friday night. Also absent from his typical stage lineup was Matthew Santos, a 27-year-old singer-songwriter whose voice appears on several of Lupe’s tracks, including “Superstar.” These missing factors worked against Lupe, but given that the emcee still brought his signature level of natural passion and pure energy to the stage, he delivered an excellent performance.
Whether a result of generic beats or simply a burgeoning desire to hear Lupe’s staples, none of the new songs Lupe debuted Friday night felt memorable aside from “Shining Down,” a song that, like “Superstar,” “Streets On Fire,” and “Hip-Hop Saved My Life,” suffered from Matthew Santos’ absence. Nevertheless, Lupe glided through an equal number of tracks from his two previous albums and his upcoming album with just the sort of humbled complacency that can make the art of live performance look easy.
Surrounding himself with supremely talented musicians, Lupe demonstrated the extent to which he cares about translating his music in a live setting. Although his guitarist may have been better suited to headline Smiley ’80s the following night, it was impossible to argue with his talent. Lupe’s drummer was a delight to look at: impossibly quick and impressively precise, he made a significant difference in the way Lupe’s material came to life on stage.
Unfortunately, Lupe’s time on stage was too limited for a hip-hop artist of his caliber. Notably missing from his set was “Dumb It Down,” easily one of his more compelling and lyrically intricate songs. Love song “Sunshine,” a concert staple that typically features the emcee rapping to a girl in the audience was also missing. The snare-thump beat on anti-violence song “Little Weapon” marked one of the highlights of the night, although the song unfortunately only lasted for roughly a minute before blending into the Chicago-praising “Go Go Gadget Flow.” As always, however, “Daydreamin’” stood out as the song of the night, if only for the sheer level of enthusiasm Lupe brought to the song. The live version evolved from the chill-out, jazzy atmosphere found on the album to the type of thundering arena anthem that sets apart a great hip-hop concert from an ordinary one.
Overall, Lupe proved his worth as both an undeniably talented wordsmith and emcee. Although the absence of Matthew Santos and a full backing band hindered the performance, Lupe’s sheer energy and raw talent shined through, leaving a lasting impression on those of us privileged enough to experience it.