In 45 minutes of almost nonstop bluster at the Nokia Theater on Thursday night, Lloyd Banks
squeezed in one minute for another mode of persuasion: humility.
In the last three months, he’s returned from being a curio, a relic of the 50 Cent
era of the mid-2000s, to a bona fide phenomenon, an unlikely twist attributable to “Beamer, Benz or Bentley,”
one of the breakout rap hits of the year. But given that Mr. Banks hasn’t had one of those in a few years, he knows better than to take it for granted.
“I am completely independent at this point,”
he said early in his set, painting himself as an underdog. Mr. Banks is the main protégé of 50 Cent, the Queens rap star who’s lately been in decline. But last year he announced that he was no longer signed to Interscope Records, which distributes 50 Cent’s G-Unit Records imprint, though he remains attached to the G-Unit label.
Especially in hip-hop, the role of the major label is decreasingly relevant, but for a rapper like Mr. Banks, accustomed to the old ways of success, reclaiming an up-by-his-bootstraps narrative must be alternately frustrating and invigorating.
On Thursday he stuck with invigorated, muscling his way through old hits — “Warrior,” “Straight Outta Southside,” “On Fire”
— and a few listless old nonhits, his voice as molasses-thick as ever. At one point he swapped his Hermès sneakers for a pair of black work boots: “These joints cost about $1,300, but they slippery,” he joked.
“Beamer, Benz or Bentley” is classic Banks, a fusillade of dense, braggadocian internal rhymes: “Beat it, I bet she’d let me/She been fiending since she met me”; and “Press a button and I’m stunting, my roof look like it’s ducking/ Meter go 200-something and my trunk do wonders bumping.”
In other words, Mr. Banks is a brainy and boastful rapper, which leads to some stratification in his audience, some there for the attitude, and some for the intricate punch lines. That might explain, in part, the rest of Thursday’s scattershot bill: Jackie Chain, Cory Gunz and Reflection Eternal, three acts with no overlap point in their collective Venn diagram.
Best was Jackie Chain, a half-white, half-Korean rapper from Huntsville, Ala., but who received the night’s most hostile reception. What he might lack in lyrical acuity, though, he makes up for in personality: songs like “Mack a Bitch” and “Rollin’ ” are anthems waiting for audiences to recognize them.
Cory Gunz, newly signed to Lil Wayne’s Young Money Records, wasn’t booed or greeted with middle fingers by the crowd, but his quick, nimble rhymes were largely charmless.
Most vexing was Reflection Eternal, the reliable social-progressive duo of Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek, who five years ago probably would not have guessed that they’d be on a bill opening for Mr. Banks. Their set — longer than Mr. Banks’s — felt like largely thankless work, the verses about Liberia and health care falling on uninterested ears. Older, more chipper songs — “Definition,” “Get By” — fared better, but not by enough to sandpaper down the dissonance.
By the time Mr. Banks
finally got around to “Beamer, Benz or Bentley”
at the end of his set, several dozen associates had joined him onstage. While they’d been enthusiastic up until that point, when the first peal of that song’s beat (produced by the comer Prime) dropped, they turned ecstatic.
Mr. Banks wasn’t even at his most electric, but it didn’t matter: the room carried him. There was no Juelz Santana, whose manic verse is crucial to the song’s success. No last-minute surprise appearance by the bossman 50 Cent. Just Mr. Banks, his muddled voice, that sinister beat and 10 tensed fingers, gripping tightly to the ladder so as not to fall back down.