Smoke is all fun and gangstas

Review: No problem here, as notorious West Coast rappers commit a party in the first degree. It's loud but legal.

July 29, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

If you think West Coast hip-hop is all gangsta rap aggression and homicidal fury, you should have been at the Baltimore Arena Friday night, so you could have learned how wrong you are.

The occasion was the Baltimore stop of the Up In Smoke Tour, featuring some of the most notorious stars in hip-hop: Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and Eminem. Because three out of the four have rap sheets, and one is currently under indictment, you might have thought they came to cause trouble. In truth, though, they came to party, and it was that make-some-noise-and-have-some-fun attitude that carried the evening.

Granted, their idea of fun isn't as wholesome and lighthearted as what you'd get from, say, the Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears. There was cursing. There was drinking. There was drug-smoking. There was even a between-sets search for the best breasts and butts in the audience.

Your momma probably would not have approved. But there was nothing sinister about it. Even when Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg prefaced their set with a short film that had the two cavorting with prostitutes and then shooting it out with hold-up men in a liquor store, it was little more than extravagant, R-rated fantasy.

It was also endlessly entertaining. Dre and Snoop performed from an elaborate set tricked out to look like a little corner of their hometown, Compton, CA. Blasting the beat with a sound system loud enough to make your hair follicles vibrate, the two (and assorted guests) ran through a virtual gangsta's greatest hits: "Ain't Nuthin' But a G Thang," "Gin and Juice," "California Love," "What's My Name" and more. Even when the guest segments dragged a bit, the groove was undeniable.

Nor was theirs the only flashy set in the house. Ice Cube had the stage done up like the villain's lair from a James Bond movie. It had snow swirling from the ceiling, blocks of ice - ice cubes? - for walls, and the rapper himself emerged from a cryonic chamber lowered from the rafters. A rap show? It looked like a movie set.

It definitely sounded like a rap show, though. From the gangsta aggression of "Check Yo'self" to the gut-thumping groove of "We Be Clubbin'," Ice Cube moved the crowd with effortless authority. It wasn't just that he and fellow MC Doug C had a strong and steady flow; they also had a great sense of show biz, bringing out NWA alumnus MC Ren for "I Started This Gangsta [Stuff], and using stage routines and audience participation to keep the energy level at a peak.

But then, Ice Cube had to put on a solid show, following Eminem as he did. It wasn't just because Eminem is the hottest rapper in the country at the moment, thanks to the success of his chart-topping "Marshall Mathers LP." Eminem is also a born entertainer, the sort of performer who can be both endlessly entertaining and utterly himself.

Where the other rappers emphasized a laid-back flow and a bass-heavy groove, Eminem preferred a rapid-fire, chatterbox delivery, one that seemed to dance around the beat. Even at its most extreme, though, he managed to make his delivery seem almost conversational, and that put real teeth into the likes of "I Was High When I Wrote This" and "Criminal."

Yet as dark as his rhymes sometimes seemed, there was no denying the joy he had delivering them. And when he got to his current hit, "The Real Slim Shady," it was obvious why he needed to ask that the real Slim Shady "please stand up," because the arena was packed to the gills with fans who thought themselves to be just like him.

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