Hip-hop has what can charitably be described as a spotty record when it comes to live albums. Let’s face it, a lot of rappers nowadays just fare better in the studio than on the stage*. There was a time in the early ’00s when DVDs of live performance were slapped onto any collection of B-sides but actual live albums? Those are pretty rare for the genre. So with Jay set to deliver a live “optic EP” of his recent series of performances in Brooklyn tomorrow, TRU decided to take a look at five prominent hip-hop artists that took a similar venture, and how well they faired.
5. MF DOOM – Expektoration… Live
As great an emcee as Daniel Dumile undoubtedly is, it’s hard to gauge how well a live performer he is. Especially when with a lot of shows, it wasn’t actually Daniel Dumile on stage, but a doppelganger he sent out with his mask on. DOOM explained his actions, to the satisfaction of few fans, but seeing how there are still a lot of them and large swaths of time pass between his projects, the label behind Expektoration… Live probably figured it made good business sense to tide them over with this. There’s nothing intrinsically bad about it, but it also adds little to his discography. There’s nothing to be found here that’s not also present on his albums, in a superior version even, so it’s hard to imagine someone preferring to put this on instead of the studio recordings. A curiosum strictly suited for the Stannest of fans.
4. Lauryn Hill – Mtv Unplugged 2.0
While some critics heralded it as a supreme work (and some as a dissapointing, meandering record), not many members of the record-buying public did. Expecting a follow-up to the classic The miseducation of Lauryn Hill, many people were dissapointed by this batch of songs miss Hill performed with her acoustic guitar. When listened to devoid of the heightened expectations and hope for another album though, what remains is a collection of sketches of songs that contain some often overlooked rough diamonds. Her voice at times coarse, giving it more of an edge without loosing any of its quality, and her songwriting skills are certainly still there. Yeah, it kinda falls flat as an album, but like with any great artist, there’s an undeniable appeal at peeking into her sketchbook and seeing how she works, penciling the raw outlines of greatness.
3. Boogie Down Productions – Live Hardcore Worldwide
For almost a decade, Live Hardcore Worldwide was the exception to prove the rule that rap wasn’t a genre for live albums. Playing like a greatest hits collection of BDP’s by 1991 already impressive catalogue, KRS clearly enunciates every word in his dominant flow (they don’t call him a teacher for nothing), pummeling beats into submission. There’s a palpable energy that makes you want to rap along and join the audience ques as if you were there. KRS- One is one of rap’s best live performers, to this day still making a living touring, generally to rave reviews, long after his albums have stopped making waves. Here you can hear him in his prime, from the comfort of your headphones. The only downside is you won’t stop wishing you were there.
2. Jay-Z – Unplugged
Jay’s Unplugged session went over with both the public and critics a lot better than Lauryn’s did. The setlist was perfect, Jay was laidback but focused and, as if that wouldn’t have been dop enough, The Roots went far beyond simply re-playing the beats to the originals. Take the Unplugged version of ‘Takeover’ for instance, where the band switches up the beat to ‘Shook Ones,’ ‘New York State of Mind’ and ‘Oochie Wally’ where appropriate to the targets of the (in)famous diss record. Great records, played by true vituosos. Besides the necessity for Jay to censor himself as to please Viacom’s overlords, there’s nothing not to like about this record.
1. The Roots – Come Alive
Leave it to the greatest live band in rap to deliver its greatest live album. Sure, competition is scarce, but if it weren’t there’s more than a good chance this would still smash it. There’s a good reason The Roots tour incessantly, even after they’ve become a fixture on late night television, their audience clamors for them and comes back again, again and again. They still manage to surprise their fans every time and have a great mix of virtuosic solos, interesting cover songs and unexpected angles on staples from their own catalogue (like a reggae version of ‘You Got Me’ they played a few years back). Of course it helps they play as a unit and have a deep discography filled with fantastic material. If this seems like gushing than it’s only rightly so, there are few bands in any genre that can match The Roots as a live act and this album is testament to that. The only thing better is actually going to see them.
* With the music business shaping up as it is though, live performances become increasingly important. There’s far less money to be earned in recording than touring for most acts, so if they haven’t already, emcees better step their game up when it comes to giving a good show.