By TROY SHERMAN
I may have had the most absurd (and absurdly entertaining) musical experience of my life on Sunday night. There was bad music, good music, intimate twerking and microphone masturbation. There were man-skirts, septum piercings, experimental baseball hats and technological difficulties. There was colored hair, cross-dressing, gender ambiguity and female body hair. There was crowd-surfing, mosh-pitting, shit-talking and drug referencing. Most mind-boggling, though, was the fact that there was all of this (and definitely more) — for a crowd of fewer than 100 people — in Duffield Hall. On the Engineering Quad. For a Cornell-sponsored event. Truly perplexing, truly weird and genuinely, wholly enthralling, this show (and a show it certainly was), put on by Princess Nokia, Cakes da Killa and Mykki Blanco, was an anti-brilliant, quasi-surrealist, utterly awesome party-rap fiasco in the most enticingly unlikely of settings; all-in-all a great fucking way to close a weekend.
I got to the doors a little bit before 9:00 p.m. (the supposed start time) and, after proving that I had already paid my (ridiculously low) three-dollar admittance fee online, was allowed into the sprawling main lobby of Duffield. Lining the corridor which led to the more open concert area were numerous crude drawings of various grotesque and miscreant sex acts, which were being lackadaisically perused by Cornell’s most ostentatiously artsy and nonconformist. Both of these — the sex paintings and the academic rebels — seemed wildly out of place in the Engineering building. Paintings of dementedly ejaculatory penises juxtaposed against lightly waving banners proclaiming the endless merit of and future security afforded to anyone wise enough to choose Cornell Engineering. The weirdness, however, merely started with this bizarre junction; the night hadn’t even begun.
The festivities were kicked off by the somewhat disappointing set of Princess Nokia. After leaving everyone to mull about apprehensively for a few minutes and realizing, presumably with a moderate level of disappointment, that the almost-but-not-quite-100-person-strong crowd would have to suffice, two scantily clad performers and a conspicuously white and middle aged DJ — who, donning a Thrasher sweatshirt, knit beanie and apathetic visage, looked like a slowly Westernizing ex-Chechen rebel — bounced onto the stage. The ensuing set — which included, among other things, a poorly received welcome to “Princeto- I mean, Cornell!,” references to Warped Tour, light-hearted interrogations about the crowd’s acid use, every sexualized dance move imaginable and a laudation of our (the crowd’s) pursuit of higher education — was verging on pathetic. And not because it was bad, per se, but just because, as the ill-fated and yet-developing opening performer, Princess Nokia, try as she valiantly did, could not engage the crowd. I imagine that her extra-dimensional fairy House-rap could have easily worked on a bigger crowd, or in a smaller venue, but the area-to-crowd-member ratio left a lot of space unfilled, and a lot off uninterested shoulder-dancers. Sadly, Nokia was obviously affected by the apathy, which contorted her face into a perpetually awkward smirk and transformed her twerking (which I imagine would have thrilled in another setting) into a desperate cry for crowd enthusiasm. The music was alright, but at this point the crowd wasn’t yet bubbling. Nokia, upon completion of her set, exited stage rather dejectedly, but apparently unphased in the long run, as she was seen exuberantly dancing in the crowd later on in the night.
Following Nokia came the king (queen?) of the concert, New York’s (Gay) Pride, the lyrically garish, refreshingly brash, uncompromisingly and brilliantly queer, up-and-coming gay rap icon: Cakes da Killa. Quite simply, Cakes killed it. His charismatic anti-machismo swept over the audience immediately, and he held us in close (even through several microphone failures) for the entirety of his set. His raps (which he claims can “make a homophobe a hypocrite,” and I think I agree) were just as in-your-face and aggressively entertaining live as they are on record, and he especially succeeded in retaining (and even amplifying) the general tongue-in-cheek (but not really) goofiness that makes lines like “Niggas pay my loans just to fingerfuck my asshole” sound not only acceptable, but necessary. Sure he was brash and showy (as so many rappers nowadays are), but beneath that layer of rap-game braggadocio was a core message: I’m a gay rapper, so what? And so, with that in mind, he stunned the crowd with his lyrical skill, carelessness as to whether he offended anybody, sexified bodily movements and, at times, downright silly ploys (such as a mid-song deluge of meowing).
As phenomenal as Cakes and his anti-masculine performance were, failing to give credit to his DJ here would be sinful. Physically, the DJ stood in stark contrast to Cakes (a good-sized, rather flamboyant black dude). He was short and white with jutting curly brown hair, wearing a jacket which, once removed, revealed a periodic table t-shirt. Seriously, this kid could have been an engineer from New Jersey who, in hopes of some Sunday night studying in Duffield, accidentally wandered into the midst of a rap show. Nevertheless, when he started blasting Cakes’s beats, he went absolutely nuts. He rapped along, jumped around, screamed at the crowd and even had his own mini rap at the tail end of the set. The mixture of his energy and unassumingness combined into perhaps the most absurd aspect of the absurd night: A short white kid in a periodic table t-shirt as the most outrageous and heated performer.
Following Cakes and his DJ came the night’s closer: Mykki Blanco. Blanco opened up with a caustic freestyle, and proceeded, for the rest of her act, to crucify herself on the mic-stand, jump on the speakers, mosh with the audience, rap in Latin, dance paroxysmally and (in contrast to Princess Nokia’s celebration of education) lambast the audience for “thinking you’re so fucking smart.” Although not as effortlessly entertaining as Cakes, Mykki proved to be a perfect way to close the night. With her purposefully raucous and ridiculous rave-raps and her over-the-top stage persona, she encapsulated the homo-absurdity and downright craziness of the entire bizarre concert, proving that, if there was meant to be any unifying message for the night, it was that it doesn’t matter whether you’re gay, straight, anything in-between or beyond, as long as you can boogie with a hundred strangers for three hours on a Sunday night to the sonic pulsations of a dude in drag.