Hip-hop does the Armageddon thing well.
Whether it’s Killer Mike and El-P trading lyrical haymakers over dystopian grooves or Tupac and Dr. Dre doing their best Mad Max impressions in the “California Luv” music video, disorder and despair have been in the hip-hop lexicon for nearly as long as fast cars and jewelry. Music like this could set as an appropriate backdrop for the bleak patch of grey the last week has been.
Yet, Jabee — the hip-hop artist who, over the past several years, has made the seemingly improbable transition from local rapper to one of Oklahoma City’s most beloved arts champions, civil leaders and cultural spokesmen — does not seem to have the word “despair” in his vocabulary.
Music reviewby Ben Luschen
Hope is the most prominent theme in Jabee’s most recent music — hope for self, for family, for friends, for the state, for the world, for the present, and for the future. And thematic hope was front and center Thursday night, as Jabee kicked off Tower Theatre’s Live [Stream] from Ponyboy virtual concert series, an attempt to bring some joy and reprieve to the masses homebound by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the physical sense, the Emmy-winning artist performed in front of a crowd of just five or so people on the Ponyboy bar’s upstairs stage (operated by Tower Theatre). But through Facebook Live broadcast, the performance’s viewership peaked at over 100 on one stream.
Thousands of viewers dropped in and out during the 48-minute broadcast, and if those same numbers had tried to pack in the cozy bar dance floor in-person, the fire marshal would have gotten a few distressing calls.
Questions linger in the air before Jabee’s set even begins. Some of those are questions about the show, sure. For most people, this will be their first virtual concert to attend. Will it work? Will it be awkward? Will it be worth their time?
But for many people watching at home, big, ugly, trollish mysteries linger overhead. “Will my loved ones be safe?” “Will I have a job tomorrow?” “Can I feed my family this month? What about next?”
Jabee — whose next studio album This World Is So Fragile and Cruel, I’m Glad I Got You is set to debut later this year and is available for preorder on Tower Theatre’s website — doesn’t come armed with answers to these questions. At this moment, the terrifying truth is no one can answer these questions with certainty.
What Jabee does offer is hopefulness. And hope, by definition, defies certainty.
“EWBANH (Everything Was Beautiful And Nothing Hurt),” the title track from Jabee’s 2013 studio album, opens the night. It’s the perfect choice for an audience eager —maybe desperate — to hear a story with a happy ending.
If the lack of audience feedback or energy is throwing Jabee for a loop, it’s hard to tell. That is mostly because, at this point, Jabee is as seasoned a veteran as Oklahoma rappers come. He flows so effortlessly as longtime partner DJ Reaper cuts beats, one wonders if the duo ever even break a sweat on stage.
Eventually, Jabee’s set rolls into “Rick Ross at Wing Stop,” a personal favorite for this reviewer. It becomes impossible not to dance in one’s seat. Is this immersion? Is this where it morphs from a video of a rapper and local celebrity on my laptop into an actual experience?
There is nothing stopping anyone from streaming this on their living room television and dancing on their own hardwood floor, pretending they have the Ponyboy to themselves.
Viewers also got an extended preview at Jabee’s coming album, as the rapper performed four total songs from the new project, premiering three of them for the first time in front of a live audience (albeit a virtual one).
The new material, which included tracks “Hands Up,” “Hope,” “Birth Name,” and a fourth song played without a title mentioned. This could be Jabee’s best writing yet. “Hope,” appropriately, stands out the most. An airy, Blev produced beat with an infectious flute sample allows Jabee to shine as an MC.
“My mom can work two jobs if I can learn to ride the bus,” Jabee raps. “We can have a Christmas if they keep us on free lunch. I can get new shoes if my uncle do my fade. And we can eat spaghetti because spaghetti lasts for days.”
Relishment in small joys and sacrifice for communal good: these ringing any bells for the people back home?
If there was any moment in the show where the live stream format messed with Jabee’s rhythm, it was probably the short freestyle session. Jabee is a terrific freestyle rapper, usually riffing off random words shouted from the audience.
With no in-studio audience for this show, Jabee asked for suggestions online, and if you’ve been online for long enough you might be able to guess why that could be a bad idea. Jabee did the best he could do with the suggestions he had though, name dropping everything from Black Wall Street and U.S. Senate candidate Abby Broyles to jalapenos and cauliflower.
The track “Penniless” capped off the music’s energetic final leg. If the goal of the night was to help a mopey bunch of homebound Oklahomans forget the troubles of the world, even for just a moment, the Tower crew found success in spades.
Are digitally streamed concerts the future of music? Maybe; but let’s hope it’s the distant future. For most people’s money, almost certainly including the Tower Theatre staff, there is no substitute for live music.
But is this better than nothing? Easily. This was a welcome escape from a crisis that isn’t disappearing anytime soon — hope in the face of uncertainty.
Jabee likes to say, “I’m glad I got you.” That sentiment, sir, is mutual.
The Live [Stream] from Ponyboy series continues through the rest of the week with some of the best talent the state has to offer. The remaining schedule includes:
8 p.m. FRIDAY – Carter Sampson trio
8 p.m. SATURDAY – Tyson Meade
8 p.m. SUNDAY – Greyson Chance
While all events are closed to the public, they can be streamed for free on Tower Theatre’s Facebook page and Vimeo.