It’s two weeks ago and I’m alone at the Action Bronson show in Paris.
I have friends in this city. I have definitely made friends since moving here a year ago. It’s just that most of them don’t like Action Bronson. That’s the only reason I’m alone, because I otherwise have lots of friends.
Technically, I’m not even really alone. Before the show starts, I scan the balcony seating of the Trianon and see someone that I think I recognize as a kid named Nassim.
‘hey are you at the action bronson show?’ I text him in French.
‘who is this?’ He texts back.
‘lawrence–you know, jack and elianor’s friend.’
‘…do you have a photo of yourself i don’t really remember who you are.’
* * *
Doors opened at 7:30 and I’m in line at 7:40 because I don’t have anywhere better to be. I’m actually not working a regular job these days and spend my time at my apartment writing or loitering in bookshops and parks and bars. I waited as long as I could before getting there and then stood outside, but you can only look busy for so long.
The crowd is very thin for the opener, a DJ wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a floral bucket hat and Hunter S. Thompson-esque glasses. His whole look is sort of looks Hunter S. Thompson actually. That’s his outfit, right? That’s what Johnny Depp wore in the Las Vegas movie, at least.
This audience sits down on the floor of the venue like they’re third graders at recess. This is weird. This feels like such a violation of decorum and French people love decorum. A DJ is playing music; the least you can do is stand, let alone dance.
I check the room for signs of other possible Americans to talk to. A girl is wearing a Baltimore Ravens crew neck sweater–surely American. I don’t really like the Ravens though and our conversation would be something like “Did you know you were statistically one of the worst Super Bowl winning teams ever?” / “Love that show The Wire” / “Have you guys won a game yet this season? [at this point they hadn’t]” so I choose not to approach her for both our sakes.
Another kid is wearing a Harvard hoodie. I envision the conversation playing out in my head and get premonitions of a douchey-undertoned exchange–‘Yo, do you go to Harvard? Yeah? Cool, I went to Stanford.’ I already feel elitist. Plus fuck Harvard, right?
I end up speaking to some French dudes right next to me. They’re talking about videos of the show last night and how wild it’s supposed to be. I tell them about the last Bronson show I went to in San Francisco. I tell them he threw a muscular dystrophic teenager named Tommy Two Sticks (stylized as 2Stix) into the crowd. I am definitely impressing them.
* * *
Rather unexpectedly, the lights dim and Queens-bred Meyhem Lauren pops out from backstage for the opening set. He’s a big dude, rocking a colorfully patterned half-zip fleece and a silk handkerchief tied around his neck. He quickly begins to sweat profusely. His fleece comes off after his first song, and his handkerchief after about three. He actually lays it out flat on the stage to dance around it, or something. I don’t quite get it. His stage presence is unpolished.
He rumbles through a few solo tracks, then into his featured verses on old Bronson mixtapes that only a few people recognize.
When he cracks into his bars on ‘Jackson and Travolta’ (Many nights I shot dice in the drug den / My raps permeate from a thug’s pen), I realize that these French people aren’t going to know many words during this entire concert. They might know refrains, but barely, because Bronson (and the stylistically comparable Lauren) is a multi-syllabic, obscurely-referential wordsmith that most Americans can barely wrap their ears around. So I prepare for my singing along to ring out when he’s talking about his style being ‘Jay Buhner’ or having ‘dreams of f–king Keri Hilson in [his] Duncans’ and instead waking ‘up naked at the Hilton with a b—h that look like Seal’s cousin.’
(Jay Buhner, Seal, respectively)
Meyhem pours two entire water bottles over his face during the course of his 35 minute set and then bounces.
I look back up to the balcony and swear that that’s definitely my bro Nassim. He has a really distinct look–big beard, thick glasses, beanie top. We’ve only met twice at parties but I thought we had really hit it off? I don’t want to text him again though. He is in heavy conversation with a girl who has Kelela-pre-Message video-length dreads. Oh man – I totally remember her, too. I bet they’re dating. She’s so beautiful. Can’t wait until I get a girlfriend.
The Alchemist come out and sets up his DJ booth and since I’m alone I don’t have anyone to share my excitement with. I’m in a legit tizzy when I recognize him. French people def don’t know who the Alchemist is, but like, Alchemist produced for Nas, Ghostface Killah, Mobb Deep–you know how tough it would be to get in tight with Mobb Deep? Especially as a white dude from Beverly Hills? So tough. Alchemist even used to lay bars. I listened to his shit on Windows Media Player. That’s O.G.
But I tell this to no one. I’m doing a lot of iMessaging with people who might care about this back in the States.
‘MEYHEM LAUREN,’ I text my friend. ‘ALCHEMIST!’ I text him later.
‘Quit,’ he says.
Bronson comes on and the last text I send is ‘omg.’
* * *
He struts (read: waddles–dude is firmly 150 kilograms (multiply by 2.2 baby)) out to the delicious string intro from the lesser-known ‘Pouches of Tuna’ off his first Blue Chips mixtape. He lets the beat loop for a solid four minutes while smoking a spliff before ripping into his verse. Each time he teases the verse, the crowd and I go nuts anticipating and pre-empting it.
(‘BEEN ON THE HONOR RO– ahhh, he got us again!’)
Bronson is wearing a very loose grey shirt over a black t-shirt and black shorts with compression boxers underneath. His shoes are multicolored Jordans or maybe Reebok Pumps. (I know it’s sacrilege in hip-hop not to be well-versed in sneakers but do you know how much those boys cost? Like, I can’t be well-versed in that shit, a pair is like half my rent and I’ve already mentioned that I don’t have a consistent source of income.)
Bronson is high as shit. I know he is high because he will look out at the crowd (venue was a thou cap, sold out for the second night in a row) and his face will melt into seemingly unconscious expressions of horror or pleasure or wonder, then he slowly massages his face like he’s trying to rub the THC out through his cheeks. It’s definitely not working. About three times during his show he crouches to the floor to recover. Once he even Tebows. Also he says, ‘I’m high as shit right now,’ which was my strongest context clue.
This is the first time I’ve seen Bronson since his major label debut, Mr. Wonderful, came out in February. I quickly realize that the lines I’ve obsessed over aren’t necessarily Bronson’s favorite verses, or anyone’s. For example, I thought ‘I’m in the robe dancin’ salsa on the top floor / you would swear I’m Puerto Rican but I’m not, lord’ would bring down the house for sure, but, you know, it doesn’t. I still yell it though. ‘Baby Blue’ is way more popular than I wish it were. It’s very whiny and quite pedestrian in comparison to the rest of the album.
The album is tight – complex, experimental, bursting with image-heavy braggadocio that we’ve come to love from Bronson – but feels misrepresented tonight. Mr. Wonderful has a number of instrumental or rap-less tracks which don’t get a stage in favor of a strange selection of tracks–he plays his verse on ‘1 Train,’ which is just fine, but the excellent ‘City Boy Blues’ doesn’t make the cut. It makes sense considering the foreign crowd, but I feel a little cheated.
(Note: I actually have a ton to say about Bronson and his first album–in short and roughly, how, in the face of our increasingly self-aware and hyper-reflective society, his combination of grandiose, caricature raps and harnessed unconsciousness are actually a subtle, unique undercutting/shrugging-off of postmodernist resignation, achieving the closest thing to authenticity that we’ve seen in hip-hop since the ubiquity of the internet, but I don’t think it quite fits in with the theme of this concert review.)
(Also who the fuck am I to make a claim like that though?)
* * *
Alchemist is masterful on the decks. He’ll cut out the beat for Bronson to spit a knockout blow a cappella. These French kids go nuts, freaking out at punchlines no matter what, like they’ve never heard them before. Their vocal response goes a little something like this once the beat cuts out: ‘aaaaahhhHHHH OH! OHHHHHH! BRONSON! SMOKE WEED EVERYDAY’ and they yell with an accent like BRUNSUN and I want to correct them but don’t think it’s the time or the place.
(By the way, if you ever want to nail a presentation for a class or for work or something, just have your whole thing set to a beat and then strip it away to give your final point for each slide a cappella. People just go insane for it even if it’s the most basic shit, like ‘Second quarter sales stayed steady from the previous, the marketing push didn’t seem to make a dent / [beat cuts out] BUT THIRD QUARTER NET EARNINGS WENT UP FOUR PERCENT’ and a boardroom will go bananas.)
A group of three really tall kids who had gotten kicked out earlier find their way back near me and start pushing people around even though they don’t know the words to ‘The Rockers’ (‘heet you wis zat drohpkeek, madeedeenaddy’ and I’m like ‘bro he’s talking about WWE legend Marty Janetty’), and can barely hang for the refrains to ‘Actin’ Crazy.’’ At first I’m mad, but whatever. I’m sweating a lot. I am wearing a crew neck sweater which was a mistake but I can’t take it off because my jacket is already tied around my waist and I can’t tie two things around my waist.
There’s an American girl in a pink Adidas hat who knows every word but I lose sight of her when Bronson dives into the crowd at the guitar solo of ‘Easy Rider,’ the epic, acid-laced finale to the album (American girl in pink hat–if you’re reading this, it’s not too late). I appreciate that she is yelling as much as I am to lines like ‘I nutted in ‘bout three strokes / that ain’t no way to rep the east coast.’ That’s endearing.
Oh I forgot to tell you about Big Body Bes! ‘Body,’ as he is known to those familiar with his craft, is a large, large dude from Queens who will have entire verses of solely shit-talking on Bronson’s albums and mixtapes. I have no idea of his actual occupation, what he lists on his tax returns–Freelance Hater, maybe, or Professional Confidence Dismantler (Ed. [list cnt’d] Whatever Job Turtle from Entourage Had, Miscellaneous Wastrel, Tangential Relative of the Mildly Wealthy). I’m surprised he hasn’t been recruited to be featured on other rappers’ songs. I wouldn’t want to be in his vocal crosshairs. He deserves theses and think pieces written about him. His voice has a unique timbre and syncopation that really make me feel emasculated. I don’t have much more to say about that except that he’s the type of kid who probably was a bully from the time he was six years old and never really turned the corner. He recites his verses at their proper moment on stage, and otherwise stands aside and nods his head.
* * *
Meyhem and Body come back center stage during the ‘Amadu Diablo’ encore. Before Bronson sings from the Tracy Chapman sample, he points to a dreadlocked white dude standing next to me and says something to Meyhem Lauren, like, ‘Talk to him’ or ‘He wants to talk to you,’ or something else to that effect. When Lauren approaches, Body and Bronson push him into the crowd and then erupt laughing. Meyhem crowdsurfs for a little bit on his chest like Superman. The dreadlocked dude takes a knee to the dome. His nose begins to bleed a lot. He tells me he just had nose surgery last week. His nose looks very broken again.
‘Ca va?’ I ask him. That’s French for “Dog your nose is def crushed and bleeding like crazy it is staining your dreads are you sure you don’t want to go to the hospital?”
‘Non,’ he replies. ‘It’s no one’s fault.’ I find that far too generous.
Bronson finishes his set rather unceremoniously and leaves the stage.
* * *
‘oh yeah i remember you,’ Nassim texts me as I’m leaving, ‘yeah i was at the show. i’m going to home though, i’ve got work in the morning.’
The concert was cool; it was also not nearly as transcendent as the first time I saw Bronson live. I wish he was more sober, but I guess that’s part of his charm. He seemed distracted. At least he made it through the entire set.
Maybe I am asking too much. I don’t know how it got to this point, but I’ve come to almost hero-worship Bronson’s artistic output and expect nothing but perfection from him; an underwhelming performance is like when Xerxes bleeds at the end of 300. Or maybe I just don’t personally factor into Bronson’s setlist choices. I wonder what I do personally factor into. Ha ha just kidding.
Outside I smoke a few cigarettes hoping something exciting will happen. A Senegalese guy tries to sell me hash but I end up just telling him about the show. We speak for ten or fifteen minutes. I add him to my mental list of friends in Paris and then I walk home alone.