It’s not every day a rapper claims to be physically exhausted from a 30-day juice fast, but that’s just what Lushlife , aka Philadelphia artist Raj Haldar, says at the start of his early opening set at the Knitting Factory on Saturday night. Perched in front of a laptop and a microphone, decked out in oversized glasses and a poofed-out, collared sweater, Lushlife looks the part of a dude who might go on a 30-day juice fast, but the question is this: Does he rap like a dude on a 30-day juice fast? Also, what is a 30-day juice fast, really?
These questions were quickly answered—well, the first one was, the second one had to wait till I googled it back at my apartment. (Sidenote: Did you know with juice fasting, you can increase your vitality whether you are a 21-year-old athlete or a 71-year-old getting ready for a honeymoon?) As anyone who listened to Lushlife’s last mixtape—the woozy, interplanetary No More Golden Days—can attest, the man has a pugnacious, gravely flow akin to a calmer Nas or a livelier Black Thought. His polysyllabic bars are packed with internal rhymes delivered in an ever-quickening cadence. The difference between Lushlife and his late ’90s wordsmith forebears is that Lushlife primarily chooses to rap over blissed-out, ethereal beats by producers like Clams Casino and slowed-down, blown-out versions of recent indie-rock staples like Gang Gang Dance’s “Adult Goth” and Fleet Foxes’ “Mykonos.” If this sounds potentially corny or pandering, well, that’s cause it can be.
There’s a thin line between transparently calculated hackwork, like Lupe flipping Modest Mouse, and odd-ball brilliance, like Kanye flying Justin Vernon out to Hawaii. And, at times, Lushlife walks dangerously close to the campy side of the line, but he ultimately navigates that corny/brilliant divide so delicately that watching him almost tumble into Chiddy Bang territory is part of the thrill. It really comes down to having an ear for beats and knowing what textures lend themselves to rap instrumentals. In his work, Lushlife shows a consistent taste for hazy synths and bleary ambiance, which is the sound du jour on the internet nowadays, whether you wanna call it “cloud-rap,” “tril-wave” or some other reductive label. From the East Coast goon-rap of A$AP Rocky, to the ever-expanding West Coast fog of Main Attrakionz, all the way to the updated Southern classicism of Lushlife associate Cities Aviv, this stuff has created enough mutant regional strands that it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. What makes Lushlife distinguishable from many of his cloudy, red-eyed peers is the way he merges the stoned aesthetics of cloud-rap with a wired-up, rat-a-tat lyricism.
And Lushlife brings these contradictions to life onstage. Often introducing songs with modest bits of self-deprecation, he then hulks up with confidence as he performs, wandering from behind his computer to the lip of the stage where he shouts out at the audience, twisting and jumping to the beats. Without ever removing his large sweater, he brings a blustering physicality to songs like “Motivation,” his take on Clams Casino’s ubiquitous New-Age banger of the same name. Glasses never slipping from his face, Raj blazes through transcendental musings like, “I’m getting by, pushing all these feelings aside/Slide through space-time, find I’m keeping it live.”
As the show progresses, the sparse crowd warms up to Lushlife’s brand of eccentric and acerbic hip-hop, even going so far as to indulge him when he played what appeared to be a xylophone on one track. While most of the set draws from No More Golden Days, he also plays a track called “Big Sur,” which he says will be the single from his upcoming album, Plateau Vision, coming out on Western Vinyl. Toward the end of the set he drops a track from his 2009 Cassette City, giving thanks to those in the crowd who remembered the record. Again, he heads to the front of the stage, rapping ferociously as sweat drips from his brow. Someone get this guy a juice. He deserves it.
Later in the evening, Brooklyn’s Stepkids takes the stage decked out in all white, standing in front of a large projector screen. If Lushlife is a potent combination of quasi-spiritual reality-bending and gritty paranoia, a la Phillip K. Dick, then the Stepkids is straight-up Tron: Legacy or the light-trip section from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bathed in ever-shifting light patterns, which impressively seemed to be in exact alignment with the music, not some bullshit screensaver a friend had designed, the band plays a triumphant set of hypnotic and unwieldy psychedelic soul. Think Piper At The Gates Of Dawn-era Pink Floyd meets Janelle Monae but skuzzier, heavier, swampier.
This is headphone music twisted into dance music then stretched out into jam music. The members of the band switched off on vocal duties (even the hard-working drummer. Someone get that guy a juice too), which at times makes the show more impressive than fun. But by the end of the set, the group turns the crowd into a frenzy of clapping, toe-tapping psych-rock-evangelicals. Two cameos from female singers in white dresses particularly elevate the music into a joyous cacophony of warped sounds. They came dressed like a cult, and by the end, it seemed like they had gained a new legion of followers.