It’s hard to believe that three months ago Trinidad James held the strange distinction of being a cultural flashpoint, a divisive figure on the level of, say, Chief Keef. Once he dropped the video for “All Gold Everything,” and for months after, James wasn’t just part of the conversation – his name practically choked out the sun. It could not have been more impossible to visit a record company without getting surveyed your opinion on the guy, his song, his outfit, his teeth, the shopping cart, the puppy in his hands. Was his song more than just one line? Was he an artist or a meme? What else was up his sleeve – a second hit, or a second puppy? Purists bristled at his claim that he’d been rapping for only nine months. More casual fans passed around the “news” that producers of Martin planned to sue James for looking too much like the character Jerome, until it became a trending topic. Blogs churned, hype beasted, and the rapper signed a seven-figure-deal with Def Jam Records.
Yet now, in person, in 2013, Trinidad James seems very run-of-the-mill, just another Atlanta rapper. Maybe it’s that too much time has passed – a hard assumption, given that he only just popped out of the toaster. But really, experiencing his live show, as at SOB’s for his spot in Hot 97’s Who’s Next Live series last night, it’s hard to remember what we all found so shocking in the first place. He sounds like a less-polished B.o.B. and dresses the way he dresses, which is barely enough to create a conversation, let alone many.
At this point in time, Trinidad James’ biggest crime is that most of his songs are so derivative of his one song as to mirror and sometimes quote it, which – while something only music writers care about – seems to be part of a larger issue, where his career path has been overtaken by a catchphrase. If he was sweating over the molly, he must be defecating himself thinking about his next move. Just yesterday, the rapper Problem released a song, featuring a verse from Trinidad James. Its name? “My Last Molly Song Ever I Promise.” (And yet he can’t separate himself from it: whenever enthusiasm seemed to lag at his show last night, he pulled out the line “Popped a molly, I’m sweatin'” as a call-and-response.)
Last night James showed that he has personality oozing out of his pores. He’s someone you can’t help but smile at, or with, or because of. He’s a character, hoarding the quality so many lack; one can see what made Def Jam sign him. He’s a one-man pep band, popping his neck like a shampoo bottle top, delivering lines like the Rock or a Baptist pastor on a good Sunday. When it works, it’s a revelation: “Females Welcomed” bounced and juked, its hook and enthusiasm undeniable. James ran the stage as if each step were a touchdown dance.
As the show dragged on, though, for the next half-hour, James revealed himself to be a good salesman usually pushing bad product, climbing to the top of a mountain just to get you to come down. During “Givin’ No Fucks,” he hurried so far ahead of the beat as to practically be on it again, plowing through anyway. As a whole, the concert experience was like watching a spinning top succumb to gravity. It became clear two songs in that people had just showed up wanting to hear the one song.
Long after the sheen had worn off, James teased, “Y’all ready for the turn up? Say you ready for the turn up.” Some responded, most silently pulled their cameras up, as if the inevitable had finally arrived. And he performed “All Gold Everything,” and it was good. But then he performed it again, on top of a table near the Def Jam section, and people started streaming out. A guy stood onstage with a giant Trinidadian flag. People still shouted the “woo” from “All Gold” as they passed through the doors. People still love that “woo.”
And then, with a half-empty room sort of watching but mostly leaving, Trinidad Jame provided the night’s one surprising moment. He looked down at the ground, away from the crowd still there, and said, “You don’t gotta turn up with me. You don’t have to, but you did, and I thank you for that. A lot of people don’t, and that’s fine. I’m gonna treat you like my fans, even if you’re not, because a lot of people don’t get the chance that I got right now. And I appreciate y’all for giving me a chance.” For as much as he is gut and chest, he also seems to have something in his heart and a lot on his shoulders.