“I’m good! I’m Spiderman, niggas, what’s up?” Talib Kweli jokingly bragged in between songs at the Breed Love Odyssey Tour Tuesday night at Toad’s Place. “I’m Peter Parker, what’s up? Bruce Wayne. I got skills.” By the end of the Tuesday show at Toad’s Place, he and Mos Def certainly seemed, if not super-heroic, at least superhuman. Their performances capped off an almost uninterrupted four and a half hours of stellar performances from the so-called Black Star duo and the other ex-Rawkus Records artists on the tour.
One of the most expensive events that Toad’s has held this semester, the concert was also perhaps the most crowded — Toad’s used its side door as a second entrance for over an hour. First opener Jean Grae took the stage at approximately 8:30 p.m. (half an hour before the show was slated to start) but immediately captured the audience’s attention and energy, even getting most people dancing along in unison to “Don’t Rush Me” from her 2004 sophomore album “This Week.” If her live performance is any indication, the talented Grae, one of the first artists Kweli has signed to his label Black Smith Music, could soon become a household name.
The clever Pharoahe Monch (formerly of Organized Konfusion) followed, displaying his fantastic range as an MC, from absurdly bragging, “my verses touch the youth like Catholic priests” to protesting the treatment of Amadou Diallo to begging for a girl’s number (“I’ll get on my knees if I have to”). The D.C. native rarely tours, so his appearance on the Breed Love Odyssey tour was a welcome exception. (Brief set breaks after Grae and Monch were punctuated by “Brimstone” and other slam poetry from Somalian K’naan.)
The impressive openers accentuated the audience’s anticipation for the headliners. The eminent Kweli opened his set with “Old School,” his guest spot on Danger Doom’s “The Mouse and the Mask,” featuring an autobiographical verse that indirectly framed the set. Despite releasing his new album “Right About Now” a week earlier, Kweli chose a setlist representative of his entire career. He included both singles and lesser-known tracks like the standout “Lonely People,” featured on the bootleg “The Beautiful Mix CD” but not any studio release, possibly because it sampled the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Kweli’s DJ seamlessly and beautifully mixed the sample into Three 6 Mafia’s “Stay Fly” — one of several clever sample-exchanges during the show — evoking hip-hop culture and its free use of others’ best beats.
Unfortunately, Kweli was apparently unable to hear himself; even after asking the sound guy to turn his mic up in the monitors, he still shouted many of his lyrics. Perhaps the shouting was due instead to his onstage energy. Or perhaps he was having voice problems — Mos Def had just returned to the tour two days earlier (he had left due to a family issue), and Kweli had carried several dates alone. Whatever the reason, the vocal change was thankfully only a minor distraction. Even with a voice as gravelly as DMX’s, he lived up to his reputation as an amazing MC. His deft, often metaphoric wordplay and his on-point delivery help him “keep it hot like matches and on lock like latches,” as he described himself in “Twice Inna Lifetime.”
During Kweli’s biggest hit, “Get By,” Mos Def joined him and an informal Black Star mini-set began. They launched into “Supreme Supreme” from Kweli’s “Right About Now” and then their biggest hit, “Definition.” After their stunning finale, “Astronomy,” during which Mos Def started rapping a cappella and then Kweli followed, no one seemed disappointed that they’d only performed six songs. The two seemed more in their element on stage together than either did alone.
Yet Mos Def was nearly as extraordinary when Kweli left the stage, performing two full sets’ worth of material with his thespian charm. After each line in the chorus of “Ghetto Rock,” for example, he facetiously struck a dramatic pose, arms crossed, nodding to the beat. His occasional monologues between songs were short and poetic, unlike most artists’ onstage banter. Plus, Mos Def can sing, which allowed him to switch into a beautifully melodic flow that he used frequently in a cappella breaks. Each of these accentuated the slightly nasal but impossibly smooth style characteristic of him.
The high point of his set came halfway through. Mos Def led the crowd in a rendition of his “Dollar Day for New Orleans (Katrina Klap),” a moving response to the hurricane’s damage and particularly President George W. Bush’s actions. Monch then returned to the stage for his verse in a very sharp rendition of “Oh No.” Talib Kweli and special guest Lil’ Fame of M.O.P. (a hardcore rap group that, like Mos Def and Kweli, hails from Brooklyn) joined them for an amazing version of M.O.P.’s “Ante Up.” Later in the set, Kweli returned to the stage for Black Star’s “Brown Skin Lady,” satisfying vocal audience requests.
By the end of his set, Mos Def had performed most of 2004’s low-key “The New Danger.” The audience, increasingly lethargic after the 4-plus hours, were nevertheless entranced: When Mos Def concluded the show just after 1 am with the excellent “UMI Says,” the venue was just as packed as it had been hours earlier. Cheers for an encore were cut off by the loudspeaker, announcing that Toad’s was closed. After so many stellar performances that evening, though, the crowd was hardly disappointed.
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