Review of Jhene Aiko @ Best Buy Theater | 12/3/14
Just a short several hours after a Staten Island grand jury failed to indict the policeman responsible for the death of Eric Garner, Willow Smith took the stage. It was eight p.m. at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square, not far from where hundreds had started gathering after sundown to begin a night of disruptive protests all over Midtown. Performing as the first of four acts on the bill for Wednesday night’s “Enter The Void” tour, the just barely fourteen year old Smith was not going to be the first performer to address what was taking place right outside the cavernous theater.
That responsibility fell to Sydney Bennett, or Syd tha Kid, the frontwoman of the Internet, who performed a crisp six song set following Smith. “We’re too young to die,” Bennett chanted repeatedly, before calling out the NYPD by name, during an extended improvisational coda early in the set. “There’s a lot going on outside,” she said, curtly, after her song ended.
That would be the most direct statement on the evening from an artist on stage all evening. Blogger Kid Fury, who served as the evening’s emcee, offered up the only other explicit commentary before announcing the third act of the evening, SZA. “We all need a break from the bullshit that’s going on outside,” he said onstage. “Personally, I think they should burn down that big ass tree,” referring to that evening’s tree lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center.
For the vast majority of the evening, though, the several thousand person capacity sold out crowd at Best Buy Theater was focused on the what was taking place inside. Smith’s opening set, albeit incredibly brief (she performed four songs, and was on stage for no more than fifteen minutes), got the crowd, who had all shown up for the first of four headliners, excited for the night to come. Smith performed the material from her brand new E.P. 3, a collection of dark-edged, alternative r&b that may come as a pleasant shock to anyone who still associates the singer with her 2010 hit “Whip My Hair.” Smith performed a radically deconstructed version of that song as her set closer, reclaiming the song in case anyone dare still associate her with it.
The Internet, who took the stage next, performed tight thirty minute set. Bennet, who as frontwoman leads the band’s blend of neo-soul, funk, and retro r&b, controls the stage with a smooth confidence, shifting from airy falsetto to a relaxed half-rap with equal grace. Late in the group’s set, the five piece group performed a lively take on “Live It Up,” an obscure bonus track from their 2011 debut album Purple Naked Ladies. Roaming the stage, Bennett sang the hedonistic chant to the enthused crowd, who were cheering for more by the time the band left the stage around nine.
The third act of the evening was Solana Rowe, who performs as SZA. Rowe mixes her lush r&b backdrops (she performs with a five piece backing band, including a saxophone) with precise lyrical detail. “Your skin tastes like brussel sprouts, I swear,” she sang early in her set during “Ur,” the murky opening track from her most recent record Z, “Can’t seem to remember your face.” Rowe indeed has a knack for lyrical precision, particularly during her mid-set performance of “Pray,” which was one of the biggest highlights of the nearly four hours of music performed on Wednesday evening. She sang about the “broken glass, unswept in my mind” before reaching a chorus that seemed to sum up the dark, uneasy evening in New York better than any other: “I think I’m starting to feel something. ”
By a little bit before 10:30, Jhene Aiko, the main attraction and headliner for the evening, had finally taken the stage. She sang the first part of her opening number, “Limbo Limbo Limbo,” kneeing down, until she jumped up and began commanding the main stage. Performing a seventy-five minute set, Aiko ran through material that spanned all three of her records from the past several years. The Los Angeles singer sang and moved with pop star swagger, with complete control and confidence in a sold out crowd that was, by and large, singing along to each and every word, but her stage show was minimalist and stark, entirely devoid of any large scale pop production spectacle.
Aiko’s primary affect on stage is that of effortlessness. She sings her moody R&B devotionals with an easy, relaxed grace that can be misread as a lack of energy, as was the case when, earlier this fall, New York Times pop music reporter wrote that Aiko “rarely sound awake when she sings.” Aiko’s response on Twitter? “I’m wide awake when I write those songs and record, them sir,” she wrote. “It actually takes a lot of energy and focus to do so.”
After receiving a rapturous applause early in the evening for her second song, “To Love and Die,” the lead single from her brand new album “Souled Out,” Aiko seemed genuinely taken aback by the crowd’s response. It was only the second night of her new tour just after the release of her first nationally distributed full-length album; Aiko is still getting used to no longer being an upstart.
Midway through the set, Aiko launched into her 2013 song “Bed Peace,” the first feel-good anthemic pop moment of the night. In the video of the song, Aiko and Childish Gambino recast John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous “bed-in” for their 21st century devotion to good weed and easy love. “The love is ours to make so we should make it,” the twenty-six year-old singer pronounced on stage, making it sound so easy. By that point, Aiko had the entire sold out crowd at the Best Buy Theater at her full command.
“There’s a lot going on in the world. I want you guys to get your frustration and your emotions out here tonight,” Aiko said on stage Wednesday evening. She would make oblique reference to everything “going on outside” on a number of occasions throughout the night, but insisted on placing the focus on the energy and music taking place inside.
Before long, though, the show was over. “Thank you New York,” Aiko announced, in gratitude, after her last song, before exiting the stage. “I love you all very much, and I’m going to Shake Shack.”
Setlist of Jhene Aiko @ Best Buy Theater | 12/3/14
Limbo Limbo Limbo
To Love & Die
Do Better Blues
Stay Ready (What a Life)
Comfort Inn Ending