Live Review: Power 106 FM's Cali Christmas at the Gibson Amphitheatre featuring Ice Cube, Chris Brown, Far East Movement, Others
The two main headliners at Power 106 FM’s Cali Christmas at the Gibson Amphitheatre on Friday each had the same job: to make a young audience remember their old selves.
But Ice Cube and Chris Brown had very different reasons for doing so. Cube, the snarling N.W.A alum turned affable family comedy actor, has a new album, “I Am the West,” on which he attempts to reassert L.A.’s legacy in a hip-hop culture that has largely overlooked the city’s gangsta ethos in pursuit of trancey club pop.
Brown, on the other hand, had to convince his many teenage female fans that he’s still the winking, nimble-limbed crooner they adored before his ugly domestic-violence incident against then-girlfriend Rihanna.
Each unexpectedly succeeded, but their performances underlined the difficult and competing loyalties in today’s young L.A. hip-hop culture. Fans will forgive a beloved figure of pretty much anything, but that sometimes leaves an unsettling aftertaste to a great performance.
Cali Christmas works like a cafeteria line of rap music: The offerings are constantly revolving, and fans get only small bits from their favorite (or less favorite) artists.
The night’s early sets showcased a new and charismatic streak of wanton villainy on radio. The young L.A. group YG has one of KPWR’s biggest singles in “Toot It and Boot It,” a song so cackling and absurd in its dating-game misogyny — and so goofy in its delivery — that it’s hard even to be offended by anti-pickup lines like “I toot it and boot it and made her feel stupid.”
Waka Flocka Flame, the maniacally dreadlocked Atlantan (and protégé of Gucci Mane), doesn’t extend his raps too far beyond screaming his own name atop percussive gunshot noises. But he does it with an eagerness that eventually turns endearing. Surprise guests Too $hort and E-40 had a similar louche appeal on their track “Trick.”
Downtown’s own Far East Movement might be a better representation, for better or worse, of the current state of L.A. rap than Ice Cube. Asian American rappers and R&B singers are having a bit of a chart run lately, with the success of Filipino Puerto Rican Bruno Mars and the Black Eyed Peas’ Filipino American Apl.de.ap. But Far East Movement’s elastic, techno-derived singles such as “Girls on the Dancefloor” and “Like a G6” are meant straight for the hips, whether your lubricant is soju shots or a nice single-malt.
Rick Ross, the rotund Miami MC who most resembles an Easter Island statue — if they could grow beards and sport Stunna shades — has built a rap career while somehow managing to barely rap on his records. His clipped, brusque delivery on drug-slinging bangers like “B.M.F.” and “Hustlin” discards pretty much every rule of great MC-ing, but he somehow emerges with satisfying, swaggering tracks.
His fellow Miamian Pitbull is always a welcome guest at these festivals, as the Cuban American is one of few rappers to sport a genuine live band and a court jester appeal in the radio-rap pantheon. He delivered lascivious Spanish shout-outs to fellow Latinos while cutting rug to tracks like “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)” and “Hotel Room Service” that have an authentic debt to the conga-inflected first waves of house music.
Co-headliner Brown remains in one of the most singularly complicated positions in music today. His 2009 Grammy-night beating of one of the most famous and beautiful women in music should by all rights have ended his R&B career. But onstage Friday he maintained a charm that felt unnervingly disarming. He is still the best dancer in pop music, locking into cyborg flinches on “Transform Ya” and a jittery, angular athleticism on “Kiss Kiss.” Brown and his six backup dancers made his sometimes mediocre songs into spectacles of physical daring and imagination.
He also has the most eerie and evocative song on Power 106 right now in “Deuces,” a viperous post-breakup cut as sleek as pooled mercury — and drawing from a pool of viciousness and self-regard almost unprecedented in R&B. That he can allow the line “Like Ike did Tina in the limo, it finally hit me” on Kevin McCall’s guest verse after the Rihanna incident borders on sociopathic. But be it from a pop Stockholm syndrome or his unerring suaveness onstage, the Gibson crowd remained his.
One wondered if Ice Cube could accomplish the same. While L.A. will always ride hard for the ’90s gangsta rap that defined the region, the West Coast has gotten better at Dre-era nostalgia than playing today’s rap game. And Cube’s acting career has lately cast him as a beleaguered suburban dad — who knew in 1992 that Cube’s biggest threat would come not from an LAPD squad car but a minivan of shrieking kids in 2005’s “Are We There Yet?”
But his Cali Christmas performance resurrected the emphatic West Coaster who terrified Tipper Gore while simultaneously lamenting rap’s turn to the south and Europe. “I Rep That West” felt refreshing in its g-funk orthodoxy, and anyone who can casually peel off “It Was a Good Day” mid-set will forever be a force in L.A. And he’s not above a little coastal skirmishing — “If Jay-Z can rap about the NYC, why can't I rap about the [stuff] I see without Alicia Keys, without going R&B?” — he growled on “Life in California.”
Few rappers can still make such a claim in L.A. But Cube has a permanent California license to do just that.
-- August Brown
Top photo: Ice Cube performs at Power 106 FM's Cali Christmas. Credit: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times.
Middle photo: Pitbull. Credit: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times.
Bottom photo: Chris Brown. Credit: Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times.