Life at Northwestern wouldn't be complete without the almost comically strange pairings of artists — Talib Kweli and Passion Pit, The Walkmen and Girl Talk — A&O Productions books for its concerts. This year's edition of the A&O Blowout follows in that vein, with the combination of the infectiously likeable dance duo Matt & Kim and the notably political rapper Lupe Fiasco. After taking a look, the superficially odd bill starts to makes more sense. Last year's Blowout offered a decidely single-genre show with performers Kid Cudi and Snoop Dogg, but by booking diverse acts this time around, A&O has ensured that a more varied set of skills will be brought to Welsh-Ryan Arena on Friday night. What exactly does each artist have to offer? North by Northwestern has the answers.
Matt & Kim:
It is fair to say that red flags should go up when listeners encounter a band where both the keyboardist and the drummer — the only two band members — readily admit they had no experience with their instruments before starting out. Make an exception for Matt & Kim, though.
Matt & Kim started out in 2004 with an intense love for Brooklyn and singing along to Biz Markie. But five short years after Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino released their self-titled first album, the goofy pair will take its danceable, indie music and feel-good vibes to Welsh-Ryan Arena for the A&O Blowout on Nov. 4.
Matt & Kim’s recorded tracks do not come close to doing them justice. Their energetic, quirky live shows cannot be replicated in an iPod or on YouTube. The closest a curious new fan can get to the true Matt & Kim spirit is probably the music video for “Lessons Learned," where they undress (yes, completely) in Times Square over the course of the song.
One Matt & Kim gimmick is Kim booty dancing toward the crowd while a few fans hold her up by her legs. During a performance at Chicago’s own Metro last fall, the crowd even persuaded Matt to try, but he was much less successful. They are not a one-trick band, though, and will periodically change up their shows.
They occasionally start off their sets by running onstage belting out “Where Brooklyn At” by Biggie Smalls featuring Tupac. In a show on the Jersey shore – the place, not the guido-populated reality show – they ended a set by sprinting into the Atlantic Ocean alongside shocked fans. They have also been known to encourage a Biz Markie “Just a Friend” sing-along mid-show.
That is certainly not to say that Matt & Kim’s music is not enjoyable by itself. They've put out three solid and fun albums. Some of their best songs include popular titles like “Daylight,” (above) “Yeah Yeah” and “Cameras,” along with tracks that challenge their tried-and-true mold like “Turn This Boat Around” (below) and “Light Speed,” which one fan hilariously depicts in MS Paint. No matter what the tune, Schifino and Johnson belt it out in a way that makes people want to get up and dance, whether in a big venue or in a school library.
At the end of the day, what seals the deal for Matt & Kim’s likability is the authenticity of the pair’s onstage personality. At Lollapalooza 2010 they were noticeably humbled just to be playing in the late afternoon, instead of having a morning act on a tiny stage like they did just three years earlier. On stage, the two tease each other in a comfortable way that has a way of making listeners wish the musicians were their best friends. Johnson once even took a playful dig at his band mate’s chest size, which she took in characteristic stride.
It is a refreshing change of pace from bands that strive to put on a huge show without regard for audience experience. Matt & Kim's quirks make them lovable while enhancing their music, not detracting from it. They come to play and entertain, not to put together a flashy, arrogant performance like so many other perfomers.
At Welsh-Ryan their contagious smiles and happy-go-lucky attitudes will steal the show. Their sound is drastically different enough from Lupe’s to ensure that everyone will have something memorable to hang onto from the night.
So, beads of sweat are dripping off your nose and you're dying for some water. You danced like crazy for Matt & Kim's set and you just aren't sure what Lupe Fiasco has to offer. You're thinking about leaving Welsh-Ryan early. Warning: if you take off now you're going to miss one of the most talented MCs in the business, with a penchant for articulate, provocative rhymes and some of the best instrumentals in hip-hop today.
Since Lupe released his first mixtapes in 2006 he has become well-known for defying many of the stereotypes that surround his genre. Entertainment Weekly has referred to Fiasco as a "Nietzsche-spewing, skateboard-riding Renaissance man," and the rapper's lyrics only confirm that he's more than the average hip-hop artist. On his 2006 debut album Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor, his hyperpolitical rhymes shined on tracks like "Hurt Me Soul" and "American Terrorist;" the former finds Lupe rattling off a laundry list of America's cultural problems in surprisingly catchy couplets, while on the latter he discusses his experience as a Muslim-American.
What separates Lupe from some of his politcally savvy peers like Dead Prez and Immortal Technique are his delivery and production — both of which are smooth enough to help market his potent messages to a larger base. Food & Liquor featured beats constructed by two of the titans of hip-hop production, Kanye West and The Neptunes, and was critically recognized for carrying on the new sonic trends set by these producers. Lupe's rhyming abilities also gained notoriety when he was featured in songs by more prominent rappers like Kanye West; the MCs' masterful rapping over tracks by Gorillaz and Eminem on his Touch the Sky mixtape (released in 2006, the same year as Food & Liquor) helped cement his reputation as a unique force in the genre.
Since the early days of his career Lupe has become more of a polarizing force in hip-hop circles. Fiasco rode the momentum behind his skate-rap anthem and Food & Liquor hit "Kick, Push" to drafting Jay-Z and Snoop Dogg for his albums. On The Coolest, Lupe's 2007 sophomore effort, the MC refined his accessible sound on singles like "Superstar" and "The Coolest," while still hanging on to his original political expertise with tracks like "Gold Watch."The Coolest was well-received by hip-hop critics and pop music fans alike, and garnered even more attention when Lupe announced that it would be the penultimate album in his career.
This is where things got contentious for the rapper. Lupe was signed to a contract with Atlantic Records and eventually began to publicize that the label was preventing him from releasing his third album, tentatively named L.U.P.End but later renamed Lasers. After fans staged a protest in New York City last fall Atlantic agreed to release Lasers in March 2011. The album was a departure for Lupe because it featured a live band with a rock 'n' roll sound — "Words I Never Said" is more Rage Against the Machine than Raekwon — and was met with poor critical reception.
Fiasco's Northwestern appearance Friday is likely tied to the new mixtape he's dropping later this month — one that many of his fans are hoping will show him returning to his pre-Lasers form, since he's outside of Atlantic's jurisdiction. Either way, Lupe's new band-based live act has been earned solid reviews and should be well-received at Welsh-Ryan.