It seems that a critical element of a rapper's success comes from being able to create and project an authentic persona: There's gravitas (say, GZA), levity (Das Racist), love of ganja (Snoop Dogg/Lion) or purple drank (Gucci Mane), and a general obsession with opulence (most rappers). San Francisco rapper A-1 (né Adam Traore) made it clear during his Friday night set at The New Parish that he, for one, was equally invested in two personas: The street-corner ecclesiastic bearing sermons about life, and the glib twenty-something artist who likes his girls and his weed, preferably together.
It was 11:27 p.m. by the time A-1 finally took the stage to headline his first show outside of San Francisco, a city he's repped hard and proud. Quite brilliantly, A-1 — who got his start in 2009 and made last year's Bay Area Freshmen 10 list on Thizzler.com — boosted his cred with the cinéma vérité-style, mayhem-filled video for his track "Double Dose," shot during last year's riots following the Giants' World Series win. But on Friday, A-1 made an effort to close any geographical gaps, looking out over the room, filled to about half-capacity, and declaring: "The Bay Area's my home. So Oakland's my home, too."
Rather than launching straight into a club banger to inject some adrenaline into the restless crowd, A-1 began with an a cappella track called "This Is Me," which chronicles some of the facts of his life (so far) — living in poverty, being black, dreaming about fame, dealing with failure, coming to terms with himself: all the standard tropes of reflective hip-hop. At one point he stumbled over a verse, but instantly recovered his flow and sprinted to the end without so much as an ill-twisted syllable.
Next he flung his arms around in a windmill ("like Michael Phelps," he said) and revved into "Double Dose": I'm a baby mama magnet but all I really do want / is a vegetarian pizza some Rastafarian reefer / and a chick that's on some sav shit. The energy was suddenly infectious and the crowd — corseted girls in booty shorts, bespectacled bearded guys in plaid shirts, twerking skinny boys with chest tattoos and V-necks — appropriately got down.
"I can't believe I stumbled on that a cappella," A-1 said apologetically after "Double Dose," wiping his face. "That's a rare occurrence." He didn't have to call attention to the slip-up, but it seemed like further proof of his natural ability as a performer. He introduced the next track by asking: "Who grew up watching Nickelodeon? Anyone remember a show called 'All That'?" And then preceded to launch into "All That" off his much-buzzed-about seventh mixtape, 2010's After School Special, which remixed a slew of Nineties TV theme songs.
Other tracks dazzled, including the Ryan Hemsworth-produced, Lana Del Rey-sampling "Summertime Sadness," a morose, yet gleaming song about people getting killed when the temperatures begin to rise — A-1's tribute to friends he lost to violence. "Speakers" and "Winners 2" were the heavy-hitting party numbers, inspired by the hyphy movement A-1 loved in high school: Let me geek to the sound of the speakers, he rapped, windmilling his arms again. Guest Ryan Maxwell upped the romantic R&B vibe with his Weeknd-esque vocals on "The Rewind." The lyrical themes stayed consistent: lost childhoods, lost girlfriends, self-centeredness, self-awareness, and achieving local fame (My life lookin like taekwondo/everybody wanna kick it).
And, of course, there were the two steadfast personas, the moralist and the hedonist: One moment, A-1 was rapping about child soldiers (I'm just trynna make the world a good place for the kids), the next he was gettin' low with a chorus about the joys of the female anatomy (Jiggle jiggle, jiggle jiggle/I like it). Sometimes he blended the good-hearted do-gooder with the irreverent shit-talker: And quick message to all the negative people of the world/I hate y'all like little dick hate big vagina.
Several times, A-1 attempted to hype up the crowd with variations of "When I say [...], you say [...]," and tried to get the audience to clap or wave its hands in the air; it didn't always work. Perhaps due to the fact that he was headlining his first show outside San Francisco, where he has already amassed a fanbase willing to play along, but maybe, too, it was a miscalculation of call and response: overshoot the stimulus or aim slightly off and the audience will become disengaged, lost.
While Friday night's performance wasn't a perfect show, Oakland seemed like the perfect place for A-1 to refine his act (and maybe persona) for his next headlining slot — in the East Bay, or beyond. In fact, after The New Parish show, fans on Twitter begged him to come to the East Coast. "Just gimme a little time to build my name up and itll happen," A-1 replied. And if he continues to hone his showmanship, lyrical dexterity, and flow, eventually it will.