On Wednesday night, August Greene, the new project from hip-hop artist Common and modern jazz greats Robert Glasper and Karriem Riggins, headlined the National Public Radio showcase at Stubb’s. The booking made perfect sense. Common, who debuted the new project in a Tiny Desk Concert, is probably the NPR-iest rapper alive.
Branded as “dad rap” and a “TED Talk set to music,” he’s taken a lot of soft joshing from industry peers lately. But the ardent sincerity and lyrical dexterity that make him an easy target also make him an incredibly compelling live performer.
Before they hit the big stage at Stubb’s, August Greene played an intimate set at the Vevo House at Pelons, and the performance underlined his ability to weave a narrative rich with heady metaphors and hard-won knowledge without losing the solid emotional core. The group opened with the August Greene track “Meditation” then segued into “Black Kennedy.” The latter song takes a hard look at post-Obama America, and Common’s earnest lyricism paired with a wistful chorus sung live by Samora Pinderhughes painted a poignant picture, melancholy and painful, but ultimately hopeful.
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At a panel earlier in the day, Common and Riggins spoke about how the project evolved. The two men and Glasper have an easy vibe together and musically, Common appreciates how this project moves in and out of the traditional realms of hip-hop.
“It’s a big planet to explore with August Greene,” he said, adding that they allow the songs to evolve organically, leaving plenty of space for Glasper, Riggins and the other artists who form the musical collective to roam freely. “Sometimes a song goes on for seven or eight minutes and I don’t start rapping until minute six,” he said.
Live, they spin gorgeous musical tapestries. The most stunning was the stirring ode to endurance, “Practice,” with a spellbinding hook sung live by Maimouna Youssef aka Mumu Fresh.
Common’s no live performance rookie, so of course he mixed in several of his own hits. “The People” and “Go!” were early crowd pleasers and he closed with a beautifully orchestrated rendition of “The Light.” But the heart of the performance was centered on the hip-hop/jazz fusion he’s striving to elevate.
As the golden era rappers and their fans hit middle age (Common is 46) there’s a big market for adult contemporary hip-hop, and Common is doing it better than anyone. Yes, “adult contemporary” sounds like a knock, since rap music has always been a youth form, but August Greene is a prime example of how hip-hop can age gracefully.