Jacob Lusk and the R. Kelly All-Stars
At certain music festivals, there are so many enticing shows that the unsleeping rush between them becomes strangely serene. When I disembarked in Mile End last Wednesday evening for Pop Montreal, its first night had already begun. Lolling around and recharging my phone, I thought, well, might as well walk down the street and watch Deerhoof. “Maybe I’ll go see one of the best live acts in North America…I guess.” They’re a noise band, but some of their most compelling moments are silent ones, pauses, cessations, time-signature shimmying. Their extraordinary precision extends from Greg Saunier’s powerfully nimble drumming to Satomi Matsuzaki’s impassive trills. That doesn’t preclude Deerhoof from creating manic cacophony, however, as the shaggy-haired, twitch-dancing air guitarist in front of me demonstrated. During what was at least the second or third encore, they said that they were “content” to be back in Montreal. Matsuzaki smiled and added: “Content [kantan] means ‘chaos’ in Japanese.”
Thursday night wasn’t so unhurried. After devouring really good mackerel, I met up with friends at Divan Orange. The bands I saw there, Parlovr and PS I Love You, were both good – the former’s set had the crowd ecstatic, even energetic – but I was a little distracted, vacillating over whether I should run to some ill-defined Vice party to see Juicy J rap about baroque murders. Instead we just piled into a series of cabs and headed towards the semi-secret Grimes afterparty for a rather different MC, Mykki Blanco. Jacques Greene was up first, reworking recent R&B (including, brilliantly, The-Dream’s “Mr. Yeah”) with a grace that made it seem as if he was controlling the decks with electrical bursts. A shirtless Blanco followed, spitting darkly witty rhymes in a multicoloured weave. And then Montreal’s famously affable and tolerant cops showed up. When it became obvious that the loft party was over, we all drifted out, simultaneously exhilarated and a touch disappointed (no Physical Therapy set for us). At least I saw a DJ flip Kyary Pamyu Pamyu into “I Am the Best” and “Bubble Pop”?
Waking up the next morning, apparently having listened to Carly Rae Jepsen on my friend’s couch at 4 am, I wasn’t in a mood to do much of anything while daylight existed. DJ Venus X was due to speak that afternoon, though, in conversation with Bear Witness of Tribe Called Red and moderator Drew Nelles of Maisonneuve, so I ritualistically anointed myself with chocolate-croissant flakes and went outside regardless. The back-and-forth fascinated me; I probably took as many notes there as I did during the rest of the whole festival. Venus was animated and provocative, Bear Witness more laconic but equally illuminating, and Drew allowed each conversational juncture the perfect amount of time. Really, I could just reproduce a bunch of Venus quotes: “Tyga might have something to say about his struggle as a black man, even though Young Money is a hot mess and Nicki Minaj has a fake ass.” “Why can’t black people and brown people be goths too?” “As a kid I identified a lot with anime…Because even if the women are doing something weird and submissive, they’re still the focal point.”Lil B
At 11 pm, it was time for Lil B. I was maybe unhealthily excited for this. I have several gigabytes of the Berkeley rapper’s tracks (which is still only a partial fraction of his full discography), but he’s not a great technical MC, and I’d heard conflicting live reports. This show was unambivalent, though, despite the presence of a few of the patronizing meme-lovers who marred his previous NYU talk. Even if he doesn’t favour complex multi-level rhymes, B is bottomlessly charismatic, and cleverly deadpan about the upbeat cult he’s inspired, leading the crowd in a chant of “I’m happy to be alive” before saying: “Some people call me Based God…some people just know me as positive energy.” He free-associated while calling himself a “pretty bitch,” hollered “wonton soup,” held up his Twitter avatar and instructed us to “vote this man for president.” A girl leapt onstage and offered him her umbrella, but his light would not be covered.
As Saturday dawned my ears were still recovering from what the very intense Merchandise and Toronto’s own menacing feedback vortex Metz had meted out to them. (After seeing the latter band a few times, I think more vocalists should sing as if screaming at a huge snake inches away.) Then, a miracle: Jacob Lusk got an audience of R&B-indifferent white Montrealers to two-step. The former American Idol contestant was doing a set of R. Kelly covers with a backing band made up of 514 indie all-stars, and made it abundantly clear that this wasn’t intended to be a high-concept joke. With his loud orange pants and beaming manner, Lusk is no Kellsian lothario, but he does have a comparable voice. His setlist skewed away from the self-aware Trapped in the Closet-era weirdness the audience probably knew best, challenging them with earlier jams like “Fiesta,” “Step in the Name of Love” and “Bump and Grind.” Even “Ignition (Remix)” featured an interpolation of Beyonce’s “Baby Boy.”
Lusk emphasized his muse’s gospel side, to the point of singing “I Look to You” (which Kelly wrote for Whitney Houston), and it became clear that this gig was personal for him not just as a music fan but simply as a man. Speaking about his time on Idol, he said: “They made me out to be this Christian character, like ‘I love Jesus,’ and I do. But there’s something even greater than Jesus, and that’s believing in yourself.” Then he exhorted us to face the nearest person and tell them “I believe in you, baby.” I did; we did. And you know what? I got to see the rest of that Mykki Blanco set after all.