Mr. Muthafuckin’ Exquire must be hot as hell. It’s a balmy 80-plus degrees at the front of Irving Plaza on Friday The 13th, and he’s jumping around the stage during El-P‘s set wearing a fur hat with ear flaps. “We’re all excited to see where you’ll go the next couple of years,” El-P says to him like Exquire is his kid brother. “Just stop drinking and doing straight shots of vodka.”
Tonight is the New York stop for the Into The Wild Tour, with a lineup of Despot, Exquire and the one-two punch of Killer Mike and El-P. The aliases of Atlanta’s Michael Render and Brooklyn’s Jaime Meline, these guys put out two of the best hip-hop albums this year, R.A.P. Music and Cancer 4 Cure, respectively. Render’s is a tour de force of tuneful, Ice-Cube-like politicking delivered amid explosive slaps and cracks of rhythm. Meline’s hulks overhead with layer upon layer of hissing hi-hats, grinding synths and paranoid threats. Meline produced them both, and though they’ve each got a lot packed into them, Killer Mike’s is thick but spacious, while El-P’s is just straight-up dense.
I like Mike’s better, maybe because there’s less to sift through, and I’ve listened to R.A.P. Music a dozen times over. And since this is the only Killer Mike album I’ve ever fully absorbed, I’m grateful that he’s mostly sticking to the R.A.P. Music script for his setlist at Irving. He opens with the foreboding creeper “Untitled,” adding at the end that the song is “about my fear of dying before my wife and children.” He drops the shit-kicking “Big Beast” next, fists flying in the audience in time with every “Pow, motherfucker!” Disciples like this are happy to oblige when Killer Mike commands, “Put your fingers in the air tonight and say ‘Fuck Ronald Reagan.’”
The place doesn’t empty at the end of Killer Mike, but the crowd thins enough that I can easily sneak to the front during El-P’s set. He finishes “Request Denied,” which sounds like a Prodigy song, and teases with the opening of “The Full Retard.” But he stops and says, “Something doesn’t feel right.” What’s missing? Why, Mr. Killums, of course. The eye-patch wearing, coke-addicted squirrel muppet of “The Full Retard” video is brought out, and El-P gives the nod to start the backing track.
Exquire, but not Danny Brown, joins for a ripping rendition of “Oh Hail No,” and Heems from Das Racist jumps in on “True Story.” The guests popping onto the stage maintain the show’s casual, party atmosphere, but you can’t ignore the emotional heaviness of El-P’s set. Cancer 4 Cure was made in memory of Camu Tao, El-P’s fellow MC and close friend who died of cancer in 2008. (That “So you should pump this shit” sample on “The Full Retard” comes from Tao’s song “When You’re Going Down.”) He dedicates “$4 Vic/FTL (Me And You),” his album’s last track, to Tao, and it’s a sobering moment that leaves El-P looking a lot more world-weary than he should at 37. He’s the same age as Killer Mike, but he still seems like the older, wiser rapper here, and all of the other performers have gathered in the wings to watch him work. If he has to tread through a minute of sorrow, at least this tired-eyed redhead in a Yankees cap isn’t doing it alone.
In they end, they all rush him, including a gleeful Killer Mike, who douses El-P in champagne. “You fat bastard!” El-P shouts. Though ever the confessional rapper, he admits, “I don’t even like champagne to be honest.”