For most of Lupe Fiasco's free show at the Williamsburg Music Hall in Brooklyn Sunday night (officially the Walmart Soundcheck presented by Axe Body Spray), the confrontational rapper didn't say much. Now that he's fronting a hard rock band, he was more concerned with headbanging and fitting his rhymes between the nearly nu-metal riffs than getting the crowd hyped in any conventionally hip-hop, party-rocking, audience-participationway.
In fact, the first time Fiasco acknowledged the crowd was about halfway through the show, and hesimply plugged his new album.
"Lasers, in stores March 8," he said, in his best disaffected rock star mumble. That plug, though, was actually a prideful announcement to fans who have waited nearly three years for Fiasco's third album to arrive. Initially slowed by his ambition and then delayed by a record label resistant to Fiasco's odd reinventing of himself (from wizened, nimble, better-than-everybody rapper to swaggering, sneering political rap-rocker), Lasers hits stores next week. So this corporate-sponsored rap-rock show became his victory lap.
Fiasco had the rock star thing down pretty well. He walked onto the stage sporting a jacket adorned with peace sign patches, an anarchy symbol, and the American flag. A few songs in, he pointedly removed the jacket to reveal a regular guy white T-shirt. And on the night's last song, an inexplicably angry take on "Daydreamin," he took his shirt offaltogether and struck one of those Jim Morrison Christ-like poses.
"Scream," a new-ish track that actually isn't on Lasers but probably should be, given the audience's reaction, took full advantage of the melodrama of a fog machine and some flashing lights. And for much of the set, Lupe was a ball of stomping, lurching, headbanging energy. He seemed intent to destroy the contemplative, glasses-wearing wordsmith persona that made him famous.
As non-hip-hop as the show felt, and as odd and jarring as Lasers is going to be for fans of Food & Liquor and The Cool, it's important to note that Fiasco is still a technically brilliant rapper.His ability to ride a beat remains, but so does his dogged unpredictability. "Words I Never Said" is an angst-filled rap-rant that calls the war on terror "bullshit" and labels Neo-Con talking heads Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck "racist"; live, it was delivered in the mode of metal-rap rabble rousers Rage Against the Machine.
There was still plenty of rapping from Lupe during the set, but his once sunny boom-bap hip-hop was now way, way gnarlier.
Older tracks like "Kick Push" and "Superstar" were retro-fitted with rock riffs, and songs from Lasers very much in this dark electro, aggro-metal style, directed the tone of the performance. Those new songs, like the paranoid "State Run Radio" and the suicidal "Beautiful Lasers," outline the lofty conceit behind Lupe's musical sea change: Make big, loud, songs that can't be ignored, that ignite in a live-setting, and in that way, make it easier to smuggle in the government conspiracies, seething political rap, and deeply personal confessions.