In a show full of rappers claiming to be “real hardcore lyricists” and sometimes failing that claim, Raekwon was the perfect antidote and anchor. Rae’s dense, visual, word-chunk style of rhyme was the crowning jewel of an afternoon of bars after bars after bars. He came to the stage with a clear gratitude to be the guest of honor, and an even clearer hunger to put on a good show. “Scramington,” he called his DJ, Scram Jones, with a smirk, “This mic sounds fuckin’ nice.” With that, the Chef was off.
Rae enjoyed himself without ever letting the energy or grit diminish. He put together a rugged set of classics from his and the Wu‘s catalogs (“Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nothin’ To Fuck With,” “C.R.E.A.M.,” “Ice Cream,” “Incarcerated Scarfaces,”) and performed them all with polish, only occasionally stumbling over a word and cutting the track. Whenever he took a moment out to speak to the crowd, it was to say something genuine and genuinely confusing, if only because Rae seemed too overjoyed and lost in his work to really worry about making sense. “Tonight…even if it’s today, it’s tonight,” he said at one point, getting a good laugh out of everyone left wondering what he initially was going to say. Later, he said “You know, you go to the South, they party, they have fun, but New York…New York we more like we-we-we visual. It’s a lot of shit going on, life is in front of us! We talk about struggle man, this is real struggle on wax! Pay attention!” It’s that kind of narrow focus that it takes to think that there’s more “life” in NY than other places that has kept Raekwon so detail oriented and sharp for over 20 years. It’s the trapped-in-the-’90s mindset it takes to think the South is all parties that has kept Raekwon Raekwon.
Rae rapped nearly ever classic joint with the urgency that they packed 20 years ago. Scram called the crowd’s attention to Rae’s performance of “Triumph” in particular–“This man just did 8 rappers’ verses!” 20 years ago, however, not everyone in the crowd knew just about every bar; Rae was lucky enough to catch a breath every few rhymes as the crowd was well-initiated and served as a strong hypeman for most of the show. The only other help The Chef enlisted was a handful of alley-oop guest verses and less spectacular guest performances. Masta Killa notably came out for “Glaciers Of Ice,” keeping all of the Wu songs from being all-Rae affairs. With all the trouble going on in Shaolin, it’s good to know Rae and the Killa are still cool. AZ came out the verse from Illmatic. The crowd nearly lost their voices rapping the iconic bars along with the Brooklyn-born old timer. “Life’s A Bitch” was particularly special to hear live, to hear chanted with such ferocity, because it is remembered and loved above all else for its wisdom. There’s very little slick talk and no punch lines; it is simply a verse of tenacious intellect, and AZ certainly did it justice.When Raekwon brought Lil Fame out on stage, it was initially just to show due respect to another “Brooklyn real one” and M.O.P. in general. However, the sly DJ Scram Jones let loose those iconic opening horns of “Ante Up” just as Fame was waddling away from the stage, and, as Raekwon noted, you can tell Fame is a true MC, because at that sound, he jumped into gear. After a momentary delay to laugh, Fame ripped into “Ante Up,” and the crowd lost their collective shit. There hadn’t been much recklessness during the day before this, but something about the “Oh! Oh!” chant of the hook jolted everyone alive. True to the grit this year’s festival was based off of, it seemed that in that moment, everyone was more excited to see Lil Fame than they were to see Jay Z. (It should be noted that this is the 2nd year in a row Fame has made a surprise “Ante Up” appearance at the festival).
Troy Ave got a medium-strong welcome, performing the extremely appropriate “New York City,” featuring a Raekwon making an always-valid claim at continued relevance and ability. That momentum was lost, however, when Troy performed “Your Style.” The song was introduced as a “radio hit” but no one in the crowd knew the words or seemed interested in them. Due even more so to the weak and quietly played beat, this might have been the worst-received moment of the day.
Unfortunately, the show closed with Papoose. Even though “Current Events” was just about the least currently popping song to take the BHFX crowd home with, they did have the consolation of knowing they’d seen one of the most consistent rappers of all time rock (with incredible consistently), as well as seeing him cosign a song so extremely of-the-moment that it was surreal to see it performed on such a big stage: Bobby Shmurda‘s “Hot Nigga.” It was a strange link, but one that showed that even the most tooth-and-nail spitters of his and all generations knows how to just have a good time.
Photos by RESPECT.’s Julia Schur.