The surviving members of near-mythical reality-rap group N.W.A reunited on Saturday at Los Angeles' Staples Center in front of a nearly sold-out hometown crowd. . .Or at least most of them did. Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella were present, but Dr. Dre, rap's reclusive first billionaire, was not. Regardless, cell phones illuminated the darkness as people rushed to document a historic moment. (See video from the event here.)
"Us three haven't been onstage together in 26 years," said Cube.
"Not since 1989, really," added Ren.
The N.W.A reunion capped a long day at L.A. Live's BET Experience, a sprawling, multi-event, weekend-long festival surrounding the June 28th BET Awards. Earlier in the afternoon, folks waited for an hour outside the Los Angeles Convention Center next door to indulge in a barrage of food trucks, three concert stages, a sneaker convention, the Coca-Cola "Flava Zone," a Galaxy S-Edge recording booth, a Sprite-sponsored celebrity dunk contest hosted by former Rap City personality Big Tigger, a CoverGirl fashion show, and who knows what else. Amidst the corporate theme park, there were highlights: R&B newcomers like Timothy Bloom, Jordan Bratton and Kevin Hall delivered unappreciated sets. Janelle Monaé showcased her Wondaland Records roster (and their forthcoming EP, The Eephus) with brief performances by Roman GianArthur, St. Beauty, Deep Cotton and, best of all, Jidenna, whose "Classic Man" hit generated excited squeals from his audience.
By nightfall, the Staples Center filled up for a distinctly West Coast-flavored showcase. First up was Top Dawg Entertainment, inheritors of the G-Funk tradition. Isaiah Rashad kicked off with a two-song rendition that featured "RIP Kevin Miller." Jay Rock continued to set the table with regional hits like "Hood Gone Love It" and "Code Red." Disappointingly, Ab-Soul launched into "Terrorist Threats," but then admitted, "I forgot the words. . .I'm gonna keep it real G. I didn't rehearse, I'm real high, all that." Then he tried to do "Bohemian Grove," but decided to "smoke some more weed" and wandered off the stage. However, Schoolboy Q rejuvenated the crowd with aggressive renderings of "Gangsta" and "Hands on the Wheel." "This ain't no jazz concert," he growled. "Wake your old ass up." He was fully engaged as he bounced around the stage, tossing out hits like "Collard Greens," "Studio" and "Man of the Year."
No surprise, but Kendrick Lamar drew the most charged reception of the night. He's never headlined a Staples Center concert, but as L.A.'s most favored son of the moment, he could have clearly filled the building on his own. Everyone rapped along to "Swimming Pools (Drank)," "Bitch Don't Kill My Vibe" and "Poetic Justice," and thankfully ignored the five-piece backing band that weighed down his set with ham-fisted funk-rock.
"Through our lifestyle, through our struggle, through our tears and our pain, we allow ourselves to prevail. Because L.A. is some strong motherfuckers," Lamar said just before launching into an enthusiastic version of "i," a highlight from his new, brilliant To Pimp a Butterfly. Then, before he delved into the "King Kunta," he said, "Out here, we love ourselves, but we never forget where we came from." However, Kendrick's final song "Alright" seemed cut short — the platform that held his band was literally rotated out of view.
Such tone-deaf production values would mar Snoop Dogg's set. He set out to perform most of Doggystyle, but didn't bother to introduce collaborators like Dogg Pound and RBX. Meanwhile, their vocals were undercut by ear-piercing feedback noises more typical of a garage band fumbling with equipment than a big-budget arena concert. But Snoop soldiered on, and eventually drew cheers for "What's My Name" and "Ain't No Fun" (where everyone blissfully sang the late Nate Dogg's verse). The crowd bounced to the Lady of Rage's "Afro Puffs," and happily grooved to Warren G's "This DJ." Their energy seemed to peak when Too $hort made a surprise appearance for "Blow the Whistle." Unfortunately, his microphone cut out just as he began to rap.
By 11 p.m.'s headliner, Ice Cube, a few people were already making their way to the exits. It was their loss. Anyone who saw Cube live during his Nineties heyday knows that he was one of the best concert acts of the era, and he proved he hadn't lost his touch. "Yo, this is my first time rocking the Staples Center," said Cube, flanked by fellow West Coast vet WC. "A lot of people don't like this old school shit. . . .But I'm gonna do it anyway." As he ripped through a medley that included "Steady Mobbin'," "How to Survive in South Central," "Jackin' for Beats" and "What Can I Do," he hearkened back to the days when he was the most feared rapper in America.
After Ice Cube finally brought out MC Ren and DJ Yella in the middle of his set, the trio bumrushed through "Hello," Straight Outta Compton," and "Gangsta, Gangsta." MC Ren rapped "Alwayz Into Somethin," and Yella spun a tribute to the late Eazy-E. "Rest in peace to Eazy-E," said Cube. "Without his vision, a lot of this wouldn't have come to pass."
It was a thrilling, generous hour-long performance. Ice Cube seemed genuinely happy as danced with a visible glee. Although audience members continued to leave, a substantial lot stayed to cheer him on. They recognized Cube's greatness as a king of the West.
"The party's just begun! Let's keep going!" he exhorted. "Westsiiide!"