Every generation of rap stars has its own colorful cast of characters and on a wonderfully mild late September night at Red Rocks, A$AP Rocky, Tyler, The Creator, Danny Brown and Vince Staples each showed why they’re among the most emblematic artists of Millennial rap.
Vince Staples might be the youngest of the bunch, but he sounds like a weary old soul on his riveting debut album, Summertime '06. His lyrics are rich in cultural and psychological detail, and his beats are both banging and brooding. In other words, it’s best listened to in dark rooms and Staples himself seemed to sense that his heavy and dark music was in a losing battle with the spacious open air amphitheater.
Danny Brown’s unrelenting set of bangers suited the environment much better. Brown’s piercingly nasal rap voice may not be for everyone, but his breath control is impeccable and he sounded extra crisp in concert. Throughout his career, Brown has moved freely between a huge range of artists and although his set borrowed heavily from his latest album Old, he seemed to emphasize the more dance-oriented songs in his catalog. It was a smart choice, as Colorado’s EDM-friendly culture was all too ready to rage out to songs like his Rustie collaboration “Attak.” To borrow a line from “Grown Up,” Brown’s set was hotter than a hot pocket out the devil microwave.
Tyler, The Creator has perhaps the biggest personality in all of rap (a truly elite achievement) and his set was a playful showcase for his many talents and skills. Using an oversized toy chest and children’s letter blocks as his stage design, Tyler found a nifty visual metaphor for his continued pursuit of the uncomfortable contrast (the day after the show, he dropped his new video for “Buffalo” which, true to form, is both provocative and silly). His stage banter and crowd work was closer to a stand-up comic than a star MC, but he’s always a live wire when performing, which builds an exciting sense of nervous tension, another hallmark of his sound.
Still, Tyler’s most effective use of ironic contrast came in the steep divide between his frequently whimsical melodies and his growling threat of a voice. “She” and “IFHY” are prime examples of this and they stood out as highlights, with Tyler rapping from the giant doll box featured in the video for the latter. As much as anyone, Tyler laid the groundwork for the current generation of rap stars, which places a premium on unconventional voices and compelling personalities. During his set, Tyler showed he still has both in spades.
A$AP Rocky rounded out the bill and after Tyler’s momentum-building performance, the long set break drained the audience of its energy. They weren’t the only ones running low on steam, as Rocky looked visibly ill after catching the flu bug the night before. To his credit, the Harlem rapper tried his hardest rather than coasting through, but there was no doubt that he wasn’t at full strength.
Nevertheless, his set had its noteworthy moments. His stage set up was a visual marvel, a three-tiered tower plastered with LED screens that seemed to engulf Rocky and his two A$AP Mob hypemen. His classic banger “Wild For the Night” was punctuated by sprays of confetti (no doubt to the chagrin of the cleaning staff) and his searching At. Long. Last. ASAP-opener “Holy Ghost” was especially effective as Rocky repeated his verses a Capella over religious-themed imagery.
Still, Rocky was forced to trim down his setlist (surprisingly, there was no performance of his biggest radio hit “F*ckin’ Problems”) and his illness clearly cheated him of energy, bringing the show to a somewhat underwhelming close. Yet even with its issues, the tour was a fine illustration that modern hip-hop is in great shape. When it comes to the current generation of rap stars, the kids are more than alright.