For the closing night of its three-day concert series at L.A.’s Staples Center, the BET Experience corralled the kind of multigenerational West Coast rap lineup previously only found on particularly strong KDAY playlists or swap-meet mixtapes, ranging from foundational figures Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg to their Millennial heirs in Kendrick Lamar and his Black Hippy compatriots Schoolboy Q, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock. Yet despite providing five hours of continuous G-funk nirvana, the show was slightly undermined by the sky-high expectations for its keynote event, as the much publicized N.W.A reunion proved light on polish and a few key members.
Granted, one of those absences was understandable. Eazy-E has now been dead for twenty years, and his x-factor charisma is something the group could never hope to replace. But Dr. Dre — who, to be fair, was never listed on the show’s bill — was widely rumored to be making an appearance with his old co-conspirators, considering his involvement with publicity campaigns for the group’s upcoming Universal biopic, “Straight Outta Compton.” His absence left the reunited group with a paltry three members: Cube and MC Ren trading verses while DJ Yella manned the turntables.
All in all, the gangsta godfathers performed a half dozen songs, but only “F— tha Police” revived the rabble-rousing imperiousness of old. Performed by Cube and Ren after leaping out of a squad car onstage, the song was accompanied by brutal video footage of recent police brutality scandals, from McKinney to Walter Scott. It stopped the show cold in the best way, viscerally reconnecting the buckshot rage of the group’s music with the continuing outrages that birthed it in the first place.
The rest of the set was start-and-stop, with momentum sapped by pauses to play the “Straight Outta Compton” film trailer, and later a few behind-the-scenes clips. MC Ren hasn’t been shy about lamenting the way that very trailer seems to downplay his contributions to N.W.A — indeed, he wrote more lyrics on “Straight Outta Compton” than Dre and Eazy combined — but the rapper didn’t exactly make the most of his platform Saturday night, performing with a dutiful competence that seemed a bit deflated next to Cube’s live-wire snarl.
Fortunately, the underwhelming reunion set was bookended by Cube’s solo material, and he brought his old bombast back with authority. Acknowledging his gradual shift from firebrand revolutionary to Hollywood player and occasional corporate pitchman, he dedicated “Check Yo Self” to the doubters who “said I was movie’d out, or high off that Coors Light.” A medley of tunes from his “Death Certificate”/“AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” heyday were still full of venom, and his interplay with longtime hypeman and Westside Connection bandmate WC was honed to theatrical perfection.
Snoop Dogg closed his hourlong performance by quoting Don Cornelius’ famous sign-off from “Soul Train,” which was an entirely fitting gesture. Blazing through his hits with cool ease, the rapper also served as ringleader for a loose procession of guests, most of whom remained onstage for the whole set, sitting at prop picnic tables that made the whole scene resemble a long-lost Long Beach backyard BBQ. Warren G, Too Short, Kurupt, Daz and the Lady of Rage (the lone female performer of the night, still rocking a pair of impressive Afro-puffs) all took turns on the mic, while Snoop was content to stroll around singing, catching up with a selfie-taking Tyrese, and showing off goofy dance moves with a Disney-style costumed dog mascot. The crowd was eating out of his hand for every second of it.
Scheduling Kendrick Lamar and his Top Dawg Entertainment compatriots before Snoop and Cube was an inspired booking: Pre-schoolers during the height of the gangsta rap boom, Kendrick & Co. are sharp students of their hometown’s heritage, variously honoring it, commenting upon it, and subverting it. And none do this with greater verve and daring than Lamar.
Lamar ran through tracks like “Money Trees,” “M.A.A.D. City” and “Backseat Freestyle” with Olympian virtuosity, and cheekily affixed a portion of 2Pac’s “Hail Mary” to the end of “Poetic Justice.” It was an expertly polished performance, and well it should have been, considering it was composed almost entirely of three-year-old tracks. Judging from the setlist, you would never guess that Lamar just released one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” as the record was represented solely by “i” and “King Kunta” at the end of his 50-minute set. Of course, the record’s more esoteric, jazz-infused experiments might have been a tad too cerebral for a stadium crowd, but it was still a bit disappointing to see him refrain from pushing the envelope.
Beforehand, Schoolboy Q offered pure enthusiasm in his short set, which followed hot on the heels of labelmates Jay Rock and Ab-Soul. (They all used the same five-man backing band.) He made light of the crowd’s generational divide throughout, mocking old-timers’ rickety knees and at one point yelling “this ain’t a jazz concert!” to entice the crowd out of their seats. But only the stuttering, nervous beat of “Collard Greens” managed to get the Staples Center fully upright.