With a leg swing stretching to the heavens and the energy of a rocket ready to take him there, Denzel Curry emerged from the side of the Pause Mane Stage and, without uttering a single word, issued a directive that no one in the crowd dared ignore. In response, a flurry of bodies moved in near-perfect unison towards the stage with their progress halted only by the barricades straining at the anchor-points. I myself felt a surge as I stood, waiting for the chance to see the rapper glide across the stage.
While Curry’s bass-heavy, 808-colored Southern sound was delivered with the unique thrill one gets when watching a rising superstar, there was a familiar spirit of genre-defiance. The same spirit was present during the rap and rock fusion of opening act KILL US, a sophomore student band. The band includes Sean Clements ’22, Bekah Reason ’22, Thea Galetka, Mory Romo and Max Folina. Their set was loud, thumping, gritty and, though at times their presentational manner was out of sync with the sharp vision of their music (which is to be expected from performers just starting out), it did not disrupt the audience’s view of the target at which they were aiming. KILL US’ ability to walk the razor-thin highline between youthful catharsis seen in the punk rock of old and the performance-skill needed to justify being selected by MEC provides a lens through which one can understand the work of the main act.
It is nothing new to note how hip-hop pulls influence from a range of genres. Curry’s deliberate refusal to conform to the kind of sonic standard which makes any art form stale is especially the case with all variants of rock ‘n’ roll. The boundaries of that particular distinction were shattered in a major way as far back as 1986 with Aerosmith and RUN DMC’s “Walk This Way,” with the video showing the groups metaphorically tearing down the walls of arbitrary ideology separating them. The uniqueness of Curry’s contribution to the legacy of stepping across the lines of musical convention is arguably more apparent in live performance than anywhere else. I preface this remark with the acknowledgment that, while the impact of the Florida collective “Raider Klan” can hardly be solely attributed to Curry, he stands as the most prominent conglomeration of the varied facets of the influence.
His latest release, “ZUU,” is an ode to his life as a native of Carol City, a neighborhood in Miami Gardens, Fla. with a gleaming hip-hop heritage. As Curry, covering Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade,” swiftly moved from a front roll to an immaculate jump spin hook kick, his body control and athleticism became the embodiment of bottled frustration seeking release from the present environment. Curry was as engrossing as the guitar riffs and as moving as the rolls of the drums. His decision to perform the cover was thematically considered and by no means incidental. As Curry floated on the lyrics, his every physical contortion and vocal inflection condemned the creators of the social conditions which have claimed the lives of many young people from his childhood. Among these victims of circumstance is fallen his friend, and another noted influence of rock ‘n’ roll, XXXtentacion, who he subsequently honored with a short rendition of “Look At Me.” Here was a rapper marrying his biting social commentary with barely-contained rage while reaching across the aisle and showing, through body and soul, what his song “RICKY” may have sounded like had KILL US written and performed it.
On Saturday evening, St. Olaf was witness to an incredible artistic moment. One cannot deny that Saturday’s concert-goers are part of the many connecting the impact of one man’s experiences in the “ZUU” to the mainstream which houses, among others, the aesthetic of Billie Eillish for whom he spent the summer opening.