All photos by Ian Doreian
Since 2008, hip-hop tastemaker magazine XXL has released an annual list of up-and-coming rappers to watch that they call the Top 10 Freshmen. It’s a nifty idea in theory, but certainly is not without error. Good on them for calling Kendrick Lamar’s meteoric rise to fame back in 2011, and it showed considerable foresight to handpick B.o.B in 2009, but it’s not all Nostradamus-tier divination. For instance, Diggy Simmons (class of 2011) hasn’t really done so much “rapping” as much as he has “acting in a middlebrow comedy with Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, only to be cut from the film’s final print” since XXL put their stock in him. All that notwithstanding, the magazine is often embarrassingly late to the party. Action Bronson, one of this year’s alleged new faces on the scene, has been churning out solid mixtapes for the past few years.
But on Thursday night, Bronson and his fellow Freshman Big K.R.I.T. showed the crowd at the Middle East that they have very much arrived and will not be leaving any time soon.
The night began with a commendable showing from the local rap talent. Townie rhymesmith Natural took on the unenviable task of starting the show off, though he did a damn good job with what he was given. Nobody wants to be the dude burning precious time until the big name ever came out to see ambles onstage in a liquored-up stupor. The crowd is unreceptive, impatient, and occasionally hostile. But Natural’s infectious enthusiasm got the first few rows of the crowd sufficiently riled up. His lyrics name-checked specific neighborhoods in and around Boston, which is probably the quickest way to get brownie points with a hometown crowd. With nary a pause for the crowd to breathe, the Middle East’s resident master of ceremonies ushered Natural off, profusely thanked several corporations (my count may be off, but I believe the show’s various sponsors were thanked a cumulative total of 18 times) and introduced Dutch Rebelle.
Hailed as “Boston’s number-one queen of hip-hop,” Dutch Rebelle’s distinctly feminine ferocity has echoes of 2013 Freshman Angel Haze. With her Memphis Grizzlies lid slung low about her head, Ms. Rebelle (if you’re nasty) spat line after line about the boys she keeps on lock, her towering stacks of capital and general unrepentant badassery. For what I imagine may be some unsavory reasons, the predominantly male crowd received Rebelle much more warmly than they did Natural.
Not to detract from her raw, jagged talent—it’s not difficult to imagine her bringing a show with this much bravura and intensity to a much larger stage and audience.
Initially, K.R.I.T. was slated to go on third with Bronson batting cleanup, but the Middle East’s hypeman informed the crowd that there had been a slight change of plan, and Bronson would be out in just a moment. The massive roar of excitement betrayed the audience’s allegiances.
A few long minutes later, Il Bronsolino himself lumbered onto the stage, dispensed with any niceties, and launched into one of the aggressively filthy ciphers in some time.
With lines that casually glide over the sexually and scatologically explicit, it would seem that Bronson’s raps are designed to antagonize. Unsurprisingly, the crowd was not offended in the slightest—this is what they had signed up for. Smiling, they screamed lines about pissing through fishnets along with Bronson, who smiled back. His set was not entirely without incident, however. As the music transitioned from the “Pouches of Tuna” instrumental to the intro to “Steve Wynn,” some dickhead fan climbed onstage and began jumping around. Without a second’s thought, Action goddamn Bronson cold-cocked the son of a bitch, who crumpled like a cardboard cutout. He then picked the dude up and caber-tossed him back into the crowd. A grizzled security guy jumped in after him to escort him out. Upon the security’s return to the stage, Bronson put his arm around him and happily said “This motherfucker just jumped right in there, shit!”
Pretty warm reception from a man who’ll knock out a rowdy fan without a glance.
But the most surreally powerful moment of all came a few songs later. Ever a man of the people, Bronson enjoys ambling off the stage and making his way through the crowd. It’s truly a sight to behold, a potent combination of the sacred and the profane. Bronson waded through a dense thicket of adoring fans, all falling over each other for the chance to just touch the hem of his sweaty grey t-shirt.
All while the fans were wracked by this religiously reverent fervor, Bronson was spitting lines about smoking joints dipped in PCP and having anal sex with Asian girls.
Following Bronson’s invigorating set, Big K.R.I.T. swaggered onto the stage. He provided a vital yang to Bronson’s ying. K.R.I.T. is style and composure where Bronson lets it all hang out. Wisely played, XXL Magazine, pairing these boys up to tour together. Dressed in all-black-everything save for his thin gold chain, Big K.R.I.T. delivered a blistering set of screwed-up dirty South rap. His crossover hit “Country Shit” makes no bones about it. Growing up in Mississippi fundamentally alters a rapper’s DNA. You can practically taste the cole slaw and pulled pork in his flow.
K.R.I.T.’s set was largely no-nonsense, keeping the stunts and chatter to a minimum, instead relying solely on the generous merit in his performance. With a setlist comprised mostly of material from his excellent new mixtape King Remembered In Time (incidentally, the meaning behind the acronym K.R.I.T.), he proved that he’s got the talent to back up his brash Southern attitude. That’s what this whole tour is, one might say: a proving ground. They’ve been bestowed with this noble title of Freshmen, and goddamn if they didn’t both earn it and then some.