When Action Bronson, Earl Sweatshirt and The Alchemist first announced their NBA Leather US Tour, a sense of urgency bolted its way through the hip-hop community. Either manifesting itself in a surge for tickets or alternatively the distant, transatlantic cries of fans to make a stop-off at their city of choice, there was a new and suspiciously familiar energy surrounding the tour. The days of co-headlining or seeing an artist from oversees hit the O2 Brixton Academy stage still feel out-of-reach for a post-pandemic crowd, accustomed to unpredictability, playing things local and safe. Yet, in their own niches and cult followings the three rap heavyweights affirmed a sense of normality in their return to the UK. Despite the missing of Griselda’s very own Boldy James for Europe’s leg of the tour, no harsh feelings could’ve seeped their way through the Reddit hemisphere. Spoiling the left-field hip-hop fan across two hours of lyrical mastery and original production, the evening cemented, and in turn celebrated, a legacy.
Watching Earl Sweatshirt perform is dividing in its nature, now even more so as the understated visionary carves his own space within the alternative, challenging the ever-experimental and refined. In retrospect, this is the single, continuous thread working its way through a discography that reaches to a 15-year old Thebe Kgositsile, biting back at a perceived adulthood through the iconic force of Odd Future. There is disinterest towards not only the mainstream, but the broadness of hip-hop that disappoints the conventionalities of a ‘good’ performance where, a venue like O2 Brixton Academy, still feels slightly unsuitable for his newfound art rap leanings.
The air of prestige around being an Earl Sweatshirt fan has, thankfully, rubbed off over the years and whittled down a crowd that appreciates intricate, thought-provoking rhymes and deliberately slurred and foggy delivery.
“Don’t play with us it’s the NBA Leather Tour…”
As the on-set of ‘Shattered Dreams’ fills the room, Sweatshirt strolls to the centerstage with a verse that cuts through its sample-heavy, thick production. This triggers an attentiveness amongst fans, who acknowledge the trade off between the ‘Some Rap Songs’ opener’s swirling disorientation for clarity and projection in Sweatshirt’s voice. Nevertheless, tour DJ and close collaborator Black Noi$e shows no hindrance in letting each track breath, particularly on the concluding break-out production of ‘Ontheway!’ Neither is Sweatshirt unafraid to dip into his older, more audacious material off debut album ‘Doris,’ sharing a moment of nostalgia on ‘Molasses.’ This receives a surprisingly tame reaction from the audience, one who possibly would have climbed their way up the speakers by the evening’s support act in 2013, demonstrating both the journey of Sweatshirt and his fanbase, matured by one another’s side.
“Hold on. Let’s make some noise for my brother Quelle Chris. Guess who’s going viral tonight”
Quelle responds: “look at that handsome motherfucker!”
The endearing relationship between the two cracks a smile from the room, going on to perform ‘Mirage’ together.
Steering his set to a close, Sweatshirt returns to this year’s album ‘SICK!’ With the emotional tugging ‘Fire in the Hole.’ There is a sense that the evening’s first performance faces its highs and lows in a compromise between his craft’s role across a larger body of recorded work, and its live rendition. Nevertheless, the moment is met with large praise and gratitude, as the rapper pushes boundaries that are truly pointing towards one of the greats in hip-hop.
“Are you ready?”
The Alchemist makes his first appearance behind the decks, unafraid to flex his recent offerings on Kendrick Lamar’s ‘We Cry Together’, a menacing rollercoaster of a track that amps up the crowd. Hailed as one of the most important producers of his generation, the mutli-disciplinary has granted his Midas touch on the work of Nas, Mob Deep, Ghostface Killah and Freddie Gibbs.The opening strings of ‘Dmtri’ creep their way in and Bronson marches to the centerstage as the room excites “knock them out of the box Bronson!” There is a transformation in energy, shifting from the observant to the more interactive and robust. Going on to deliver a super-charged performance of ‘Capoeira,’ the New York rapper juggles between playing, not air guitar, correction, air saxophone and picking up copies of his best-selling book ‘F*ck It, I’ll Start Tomorrow: A True Story’ to sign. There is an undeniable star power in Bronson’s talent and character, one that refuses to take a backseat despite his fixation on straight-up bars and verses.
“I’m not the one for talking, I’m here to rap.”
This is most prominent on the boom-bap bounce of a track like ‘I Hate Everything’, which urges the room to raise their hands, and crutches in some cases, to the air. The Alchemist shares each and every moment as his own, gleaming in his passion and even breaking out into his own verse for ‘Hold You Down.’ Yet, it’s ‘Latin Grammys’ and an introspective acapella verse from ‘9-24-11’ that mark the most celebratory and infectious highlights of the set, raising Bronson’s fists to the air as he prides itself on an engaging and comfortable performer. Swaying between 2015’s breakthrough track ‘Baby Blue’ and more recent material from ‘Crocodile Turbo’, the rapper pieces together a show that is demonstrative of his decade-spanning career.
“Sup’ Bam Bam!”
As Earl Sweatshirt, Lord Apex, Black Noi$e, Quelle Chris and The Alchemist unite on stage for closing track ‘Storm of the Century,’ they take their bow in the glory of a brilliant show. Undoubtedly, 2022’s BA Leather Tour has made its mark in hip-hop’s history books.
Words: Ana Lamond