If the world ends on Friday, this is what I will have seen before I die: elves in green striped stocking hats passing out candy canes, men dressed like Black Eyed Peas signed to Maybach Music and others wearing chains of electric jellyfish from Super Mario Bros. I will have seen Big Sean communing on-stage with a man in a tiger suit named Rico and Trinidad James hopping off of a gold bike seemingly stolen from the set of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. I will have heard a packed amphitheatre of teenagers chanting “I BEAT THE PUSSY UP,” “POPPED A MOLLY, I’M SWEATING WOO,” “WHATCHU TWERKIN WITH?” and “BAD BITCH CONTEST, YOU IN FIRST PLACE.”
At Cali Christmas, everyone is a winner. They technically wouldn’t be here if they weren’t. It’s the annual Roman carnival/concert thrown by Power 106, the iconic Los Angeles Radio Station whose tagline is “Where Hip Hop Lives.” At the moment, the #1 song on KPWR (105.9 FM) is French Montana’s Pop That,” which means that hip-hop’s pulse is alighted by songs for strippers, twerkers, and anyone well versed in “popping that pussy.” In case you were curious or have never seen the video for Diplo’s “Express Yourself,” the Urban Dictionary defines pussy popping as, “no physical popping of the female vagina takes place, but the hips and ass is gyrated in a popping motion.” The more you know.
French Montana, the somnolent Moroccan rapper whose alias is nominally attached to the “Pop That” single did not fanute his way onto his lineup. Nor did the Human Christmas Sweater, Drake. But everyone else on the twerkadelic anthem graced the Gibson Amphitheatre. 2 Chainz and Rick Ross were advertised headliners. While Lil Wayne hobgoblined his way to the stage for a surprise cameo during Kendrick Lamar’s headlining set. If you were looking for a four-hour summation of this year in commercial rap, Power 106 gathered most of the main players.
That’s why the concert had been sold out for weeks. On CraigsList, you couldn’t find anything for under less than $200 a pair. Outside the venue, sketchy scalpers Ying Yang-whispered exorbitant prices to prospective buyers. Inside the venue, bros in USC letterman’s jackets rubbed up against gyrating blondes in sparkly shirts, rows of tramp-stamped, blunt-smoking 16-year-old girls in stocking hats, pierced Latino teenagers, ballers in black leather jackets and gold chains, and girls with evening dresses the size of scarves. Pandemonium. The ratchet elite singing along to the “and you even licked my balls” part of “Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None). If you’ve ever wanted to call out, “Merry Cali Christmas” in your best ersatz Santa voice, this is the place to do it. You may get a strange look or four.
* * *
It’s impossible not to know when Meek Mill is rapping because like an unthawed Austin Powers, Meek Mill CAN’T CONTROL THE VOLUME OF HIS VOICE. I am apparently one of the few people in the world who finds this incredibly annoying and something that blunts the impact of his music. The Inspectah Deck once bragged that he would “scream on your ass like your dad,” but listening to Meek Mill is like listening to your high-voiced little brother read his dream journal to you until he annoys you enough to let him borrow your car. Meek Mill really enjoys cars. He told us that between songs. He also explained the definition of “racked up shawty” and that his other hobbies are “getting money” and “fucking bitches.” He should like totally hang out with Frito from Idiocracy.
“’The Inspectah Deck once bragged that he would “scream on your ass like your dad,’ but listening to Meek Mill is like listening to your high-voiced little brother read his dream journal to you until he annoys you enough to let him borrow your car.”
Instead, Meek Mill hangs out with Rick Ross, who eats at least four whole fried crustaceans and a Coke each day to ensure that he remains the biggest boss that anyone has ever seen thus far. He’s up next, but is currently waiting in the wings so his young associate can rap like he was doing wind sprints. Meek Mill is by no means bad, just boring. His chief advancement is that he discovered how to rap in all-caps. He talks a little bit about his Instagram page, how he is doing it for “people who are young and trying to handle their business,” and shouts out all the “pretty people.” Then he honks his way through several sound-a-like songs until getting to “Amen,” his lone solo hit sans Ross — the only time the crowd genuinely comes to life.
Things really get out of control during “IMA Boss.” Rick Ross does a fat little duck waddle on-stage to join his protégé, grunt about how other rappers are frauds, and the crowd goes wild. He possesses a combination of hubris and chutzpah usually only found in Greek Gods, Jimmy Buss, and a young Norman Mailer — a marvelous American fake. Just last week, he was forced to cancel a tour due to real gangsters threatening his life. His capacity for reinvention is so strong that he has mesmerized us into indulging in the lavish fantasy world he’s created. Also, the music is largely good. But there’s an un-winking camp between the boasts, the photo shoots with his moobs hanging out and the general absurdity associated with the Black Bar-Mitzvah, the Wizard of Rawse.
After about two songs of watching Rick Ross, the novelty of watching Rick Ross starts to dim. When you’re listening to his songs, you envision him on a yacht in the Caribbean, wearing all-white linen robes and being fed fruit platters by mermaids that stash drugs in their sea shells. In person, you actually see that it’s a fat man in a black shirt, a few thick chains, and jeans, walking walrus-like and blubbering about selling drugs on his iPhone. He performs the hits: “9 Piece,” B.M.F.,” Stay Schemin,” “I’m on One,” “Hustlin,” and of course, “Pop That.” But performing “Pop That” without French Montana is like watching “Casablanca” without Bogart. Here’s to not having to look at that.
* * *
Where do you want me to start? Am I supposed to actually give some sort of critical appraisal of Trinidad James’ gold tricycle glide on-stage to drone “All Gold Everything.” The crowd knew most of the words but Trinidad James is essentially the swag-rap Manchurian Candidate. If you say the word “Trinidad James” in the mirror three times after midnight, Lil B shows up bloodied. He has just received $2 million from Def Jam and he’s in LA and he has popped a molly and he’s sweating. What more do you need to know?
The encore to “All Gold Everything” is a radio DJ exhorting the crowd to buy popcorn and beers and the “Yes, I’m From Compton” shirts on-sale in the merch booth. By my guesstimate, 98 percent of the audience is not qualified to wear said shirt.
Neither is weasel-voiced quail-legged, Big Sean. He is wearing a knee-length plaid vest and a gold chain and looks like the “swaggiest” member of Lambda Lambda Lamda. He officially “broke” last year with a song called “A$$” that makes “Baby Got Back” look like “Baby Be Mine.” But Nicki Minaj murdered her verse and MC Hammer samples are timeless and Big Sean rapped without stopping and well, here we are. Big Sean is finally famous and is using his pulpit to rap alongside a man in a lion costume named Rico (at least that’s the name I heard and I’m sticking with it).
The thing about watching a Big Sean show is that he performs a bunch of pretty good songs in which he is invariably the worst part. He performs “Clique” and calls himself “B-I-G” and there is no God, because any God of mine would raise Biggie Smalls from the grave and have him kick in the door on Big Sean’s blasphemy. Later, he calls himself “Big Poppa,” a move that should have inspired a national moratorium by now. How much can we take?
Meanwhile, Big Sean is telling us to “get high and smoke weed and fuck bitches and do what you want to do in my life no matter if you’re too white, too black, too short or too tall.” He says he wants inspire us and then promptly inspires the crowd to chant “SUCK MY DICK” to anyone hating on them. It happens to be the same sad day as the shooting in Newtown, so Sean proposes a moment of silence. Several seconds after it ends, he solemnly tells the crowd that we should party and have a good time for everyone who is dead and put up this drink like it was our last. Several minutes later, he performs his verse from “I Don’t Like” and ad-libs about how he doesn’t like “stank vaginas.” Then he takes off his shirt, revealing his pheasant-chest for “A$$.”
* * *
Right now, as you’re reading this, there’s a girl in therapy for only winning the bronze medal in a “Bad Bitch” contest. Such is the impact that 2 Chainz has had on the national discourse since re-branding himself in 2010. Once he was Tity Boi, now he is 2 Chainz, the hair-weave killer, a lanky cross between Maxi Priest and a praying mantis. This may be the most successful name change since Norma Jean Baker became Marilyn Monroe.
2012 belonged to 2 Chainz. He was on practically every radio anthem: “Bandz a Make Her Dance,” “Beez in Da Trap,” “Mercy,” and his own “I’m Different” and “Birthday Song.” The latter snapped the nearly ten-year streak of “In Da Club,” as the rap birthday song. 2 Chainz is the endearing friend who always gives you the right wrong advice. The rap game Leon from Curb Your Enthusiasm.
On-stage, 2 Chainz is a forceful presence: tall, goofy, and charismatic. As one writer said: he dances like a white man with the confidence of a black man. He’s wearing two gargantuan gold chains and a chain walle and a sparkly leather coat and dark jeans, yellow and black wrap around his braids. 2 Chainz’s lyrics aren’t exactly good but they’re memorable, which kind-of makes them good. You aren’t really supposed to think about 2 Chainz’s music. You’re supposed to chant things like “HAIR LONG MONEY LONG,” and “SHE GOT A BIG BOOTY, SO I CALL HER BIG BOOTY.” It’s mindless but he has hits and plays them all, and it’s probably the most fun performance of the night. When I try to get a drink during his final song (“I’m Different,”), the aisles are clogged with people dancing. At this moment, everyone is winning the bad bitch contest.
* * *
Unlike New York, Los Angeles has rarely had a clearly defined King of Rap. Since The Chronic, Dre was the gangsta Obi-Wan, but he’s always been a producer who happens to rap, not the other way around. LA has always been more of a collection of scenes than a vertical rap ladder. Of course, there’s been Ice Cube and Snoop and Kurupt, but no one ever really called them the King of LA. The only one close was 2Pac, but he was technically from the Bay via Baltimore and New York.
Right now, it’s Kendrick Lamar. The other stars on the Cali Xmas lineup have bigger songs than Kendrick. Some of are fun performers and some are completely foul. But 25-year old Compton-raised Kendrick captures people’s hearts and imagination. He’s the only one on the bill who reminds you that this can be more than mindless entertainment. That might sound a little corny, but the music is infinitely more rewarding than writing about it could ever be. You’ve heard the record. You know.
This is Lamar’s biggest performance to date — headlining the hometown rap radio station show. He grew up listening to all the names above and got great and refused to compromise and suddenly became the biggest rapper in the city. With a regional nod, he opens with “Westside Right on Time,” an excised cut from his Interscope/Aftermath debut, good kid, m.A.A.d city. He’s in a peacoat and a long navy tunic and black jeans and sparkling white shoes, looking like a little wizard, small, alone, and waving his arms on-stage — gifted with a searing intensity that allows him to rap into the retinas of people sitting in the last row.
It helps that Lamar raps like a ninja, with rapid, agile bursts, fluid reversals and verbal jujitsu distilled into songs about self-nullification and peer pressure, sexual temptations, substance abuse, and filial loyalty. On paper, they should be excruciatingly boring but they’re executed artfully, with empathy and uncommon musicality.
He rips “P&P” from his pre-Section 80 EP and performs his generational manifesto, “ADHD.” His predecessors celebrated an array of sins that Lucrezia Borgia could only have dreamed of. Here Kendrick says the exact opposite: “eight doobies to the face … fuck that/12 bottles to the face … fuck that.” Then he brings out Schoolboy Q to perform “Hands on the Wheel.” It might have seemed hypocritical for anyone else to follow-up a song about moderation with a song about drunk driving, but Kendrick reconciles the contradictions. He doesn’t seem preachy, just honest. Besides, you can’t be accountable for the irresponsibility of your friends.
The appearance of Q sends the crowd into full-on frenzy. During Lamar’s 45-minute set, he trots out his two other partners in Black Hippy: Jay Rock and Ab-Soul. The former helps him smash a rendition of “Money Trees.” Other guests include J Cole, Lil Wayne (for “No Worries”) and E-40 and Too Short (for “Function” and “Bitch.”)
But what made it powerful was that Lamar refused to cede the spotlight. He felt like the virtuosic conductor, making the most impact with his own pieces: “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe,” “Backseat Freestyle,” “m.A.A.d City” and the closer, his biggest single to date, “Swimming Pools (Drank).” It was undeniable, the sort of thing that gives you hope—a reminder that artistry can prevail without having to pop molly or pussy.
I walked out feeling pretty good, so I took a free candy cane from one of the hired Cali Xmas elves. It was delicious. I’m ready, Mayans.