“It’s good to be home,” said legendary New York rapper Rakim, stepping onstage at Manhattan’s Nokia Theatre Times Square on Friday night. A young crowd waved their hands in the air, jumped, and screamed lyrics to his 1987 street classic “My Melody,” as the 39-year-old rapper breezed through the song, and other fan favorites like “Eric B. Is President,” “I Ain’t No Joke,” and “In the Ghetto.”
Amazingly, Rakim’s voice is as smooth and rhythmic as it was on his 1987 debut, Eric B. and Rakim’s Paid in Full, which set new standards for lyrical content, cadence, and style, and has influenced everyone from Nas to Eminem.
Joining Rakim (pictured) for this stop on the Hip-Hop Live tour, was one of Shaolin’s finest, Ghostface Killah, and newcomer Brother Ali. At several points during his hour-long set, Rakim addressed grumbling radio show host Ed Lover’s disapproval of the tour; Lover reportedly had issues with a live band playing hip-hop music, and a “white dude” –- referring to Brother Ali, who is albino – co-headlining the show. But Rakim dusted the dirt off his shoulder, and energized “the kids” in the crowd in a way that no one else on the bill could do.
Indeed, the 90-minute set by Ghostface and his large entourage was full of highs and lows. Ghost worked through hits (“BackLike That,” “Cherchez LaGhost”) and uncharted cuts (“The Champ,” and“Run”) alike, but at one point, roared “the energy you give to me is the energy I give to you.” Then, after accusing the crowd of “frontin,” and “actin like y’all real Wu-Tang Clan fans,” a grumpy Ghostface yelled at some nervous sound guy to turn up his mic. It all got a little uncomfortable – and not just for that dude hiding underneath thesound board, but also for “the kids” who stood tightly together, dressed intheir ’80s paraphernalia, stiff, clueless, and anxiously mouthingthe wrong words to Wu-Tang classics “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Triumph.”
That was in contrast to the smattering of enthusiastic thirty- and fortysomethings sprinkled throughout the auditorium; one older guy in the audiencestrong-armed his way through the crowd, then cut in front of me for a chanceto shake Rakim’s hand, and blurt-out lyrics like he’d written them himself. Still, whilethe majority of the audience seemed a little out of touch with the things that drew my generation to hip-hop – its creativity, its rebelliousness, its ability to imbue us with a sense of dignity and courage – they seemedknowledgeable enough to recite Rakim lyrics, and astute enough tobuy tickets to a concert that didn’t spotlight ringtone rappers, or dudes who create awkward dances on YouTube. And that has tocount for something, right?