In my 30 years on the planet, I’ve seen a lot of shows. Mind you, not as much as some of you, but I’ve been to my fair share of music. Saying that, all I’ve learned from my experience is that it takes one thing to make live music enjoyable (besides, you know, liking what’s being played), and that’s the performer enjoying him- or herself. Whichever way that energy flows, it feeds back into the audience — you sit up there looking bored, everyone else who spent money to watch you is going to be bored, too.
Thankfully, this isn’t what we got Thursday, May 2 at The Orange Peel when rappers Danny Brown and Kitty came to town on the Old & Reckless Tour. As Danny himself repeatedly reminded the crowd, this wasn’t a rap show, it was a party, something that was passed on to a rowdy crowd of mostly 20-somethings and college kids (and what I’m pretty sure was one saintly mother who was there acting as a chaperone, God bless her).
From a big picture standpoint, the show was a display of music’s new order, away from mainstream artists and the traditional label system. Instead, these are two artists who’ve built success through mostly non-traditional means — namely, the Internet — and are an example of where the music industry is headed. What’s curious is how their careers have dovetailed — Brown, the 32-year-old Detroit rapper and Kitty, the 20-year-old former Claire’s Boutique employee — and yet the pairing felt both natural (the two are friends in real life) and kind of genius in its freshness.
A lot of this is the eccentric Brown’s doing. With his wild hair, skinny jeans and unorthodox approach to hip-hop, you don’t become a fan of his without being open to different ways of approaching things.
It was in this spirit that Kitty — formerly Kitty Pryde, the Daytona Beach native who gained Internet fame with her YouTube video for the song “Okay Cupid” — came dancing out onstage. I’ve never seen a performance so unabashedly bubbly, as she pranced around, occasionally stopping to apologize for not being Danny Brown. It’s something that could’ve turned awkward fast, but the lady’s got an inherent onstage charisma and was able to own it, often acknowledging that maybe half the crowd didn’t know what to make of this girl rapping about boy problems and suburban life, but then shrugging it off.
But the rest of the crowd — especially a mob of boys towards the front, one of whom’s request for Kitty’s phone number was quickly rebuffed — seemed into it. Kitty, who’s honestly talented (the sad idea that being a girl who raps is inherently a gimmick is depressingly ludicrous), was up there having fun. Perhaps the best description of her performance was like watching someone sing and dance around their bedroom. There was no sense of pretense or privilege (remember when people enjoyed listening to music?), making all the difference.
In a lot of ways, this was a show tailored to the fan. I’m not talking just about Kitty’s inclusions, but Brown’s entire set list seemed customized for people who spend way too much on blogs looking for one-off tracks. The first third of his set consisted mostly of tracks like “Jealousy” and “The Black Brad Pitt” that are familiar if you’ve found them floating around the Internet. These were mixed in with performances of various guest appearances off others’ albums, meaning there had to be a certain amount of fanatical dedication to get the most out of Brown’s set. Of course, maybe this is just a symptom of being in between albums, as Brown soon jumped into cuts off his breakout XXX and his new record Old, which is slated to come out in August. Brown is one of our more idiosyncratic rappers, with the ability to tackle both serious topics and be irreverent, clever, and highly sexualized. Live, it’s all the latter, as Brown understands the importance of keeping his party going and understanding what his audience is there for (that cunnilingus anthem “I Will” got the biggest response is obviously no coincidence), and rarely stopping to let anyone compose themself.
I read somewhere once long ago about Steve Albini’s thoughts on live music. Basically, he posited, there are two kinds of artists — those who care only about the live show and use their recordings as a document of them, and, of course, vice versa. Brown falls somewhere closer to the former. It’s just him, a microphone, his DJ Skywlkr, and a whole, whole lot of energy. There’s no back-up dancers, no backing band, no guy running around with a trombone, none of the things that can push live hip-hop towards the realm of corny. Again, it’s all about how the performer feels about performing, and not to play armchair psychologist here, but there’s a palpable sense that Brown’s at the point in his career where he enjoys his fans and loves doing something as silly as performing for a living. And that’s what made all the difference.