Vince Staples and Kilo Kish Are Making Pop Music Smart Again

Vince Staples kept it dark and moody at the Gothic Theatre Friday night.EXPAND
Vince Staples kept it dark and moody at the Gothic Theatre Friday night.
Tom Murphy
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Vince Staples is the kind of dream star who doesn't come along often in pop culture. Off stage, he's witty, bantering about everything from cold-pressed juice to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. To see pure Staples gold, check out this 2016 appearance on Bill Simmons's ill-fated HBO talk show Any Given Wednesday. Adding to Staples's public persona, he is an amazing artist. His first of two Denver concerts at the Gothic Theatre, on Friday, March 3, was a fascinating one, a show in which he was slightly disconnected from the crowd but true to his hyper-intelligent style.

Opener Kilo Kish was worth arriving to the show on time for. Popping out at 9 p.m. on the dot, backed by a multi-instrumentalist providing beats, tracks and live guitar, she slayed for thirty juicy minutes. At first, Kish, in her signature power suit, sat at stage left at a table adorned with a red telephone. She dramatically flipped through a newspaper before walking to a microphone center stage to open with "Hello, Lakisha." Her minor tones meshed with an electronically produced big-band sound reminiscent of Björk's style.

Kilo Kish let her freak flag fly at the Gothic Theatre.EXPAND
Kilo Kish let her freak flag fly at the Gothic Theatre.
Tom Murphy

In the background, a video of Kish twirling around while FaceTiming herself proved to be excellent self-referential commentary. On stage, the artist yanked herself about in David Byrne-esque "Once in a Lifetime"-like fashion as she sang, looking over the crowd with a blank stare. Tracks like "Self Importance" and "The Fears of a Dilettante" continued Kish's performative examination of the ego, her sometimes atonal vocals grating artfully against the beat.

Whether she was fighting the constraints of her suit jacket, flinging a briefcase about or wrapping the curly cord of a clunky telephone receiver around her neck, the artist created a scene worth watching. The whole set felt like a no-wave throwback, a performance that could have fit in well at the Mudd Club forty years prior.

Next up, Vince Staples hurled himself onto the Gothic Theatre's stage promptly at 10 p.m., plunging into "Prima Donna." The tour's "Life Aquatic" theme was spelled out on screens, now extended to three panels; projections of a bubbling aquarium and various flashes of ocean life accompanied Staples most of the evening. Draped in a hoodie, Staples delivered "Fire" without fanfare, continuing his hunched-over stance to rap through the swinging melody of the deceivingly bleak "Smile."

Vince StaplesEXPAND
Vince Staples
Tom Murphy

Blunt pulls and vape puffs filled the air above the crowd with clouds of smoke; lasers shot from the stage. The high-tech light technology against the grand art-deco interior of the Gothic created a futuristic club look that complemented Staples's elusive but compelling presence. The rumbling bass of "Lift Me Up" animated the MC, who throughout the night teetered between performing as if it were a chore and a passion.

Staples ran through a string of tracks from 2015's Summertime '06, the audience rapping along to "Jump Off the Roof," "Señorita" "Lemme Know" and "Birds and Bees." On one rare occasion when he acknowledged the people in front of him, he asked the excited crowd to jump along with him — but that was the exception. For the most part, he seemed to perform in a separate space from the rest of us, yet it somehow worked: Staples's aloofness — on top of his powerful lyrics — is part of what makes his persona so powerful.

The spotlight shone on the artist directly just a few times. For most of the set, Staples appeared as a shadow, backlit by the lighting and the booming brightness of the LED screens. His song "War Ready," which samples OutKast's "ATLiens," rattled through the room like Andre 3000 was there. The most dynamic moment of the night came with Staples's rendition of "Hands Up" — the crowd lifting their hands in the air as red and blue hues beamed from the stage like police lights. "Loco" — which features opener Kilo Kish on the recording — followed without her accompaniment.

Vince Staples's "Norf Norl" encore came with a postcard image of his home town of Long Beach, California.EXPAND
Vince Staples's "Norf Norl" encore came with a postcard image of his home town of Long Beach, California.
Tom Murphy

Staples closed the evening with "Blue Suede," saying goodnight and disappearing. A minute or so later, he returned with an encore of "Norf Norf," the anthem to his home town, which he performed against a kitschy postcard projection that read "Greetings from Long Beach." Next came "Summertime," before he walked off the stage for good.

Kish and Staples have collaborated on a record, and the live show was a missed opportunity to bring that connection to life. Both artists, under age thirty, are already profound in their craft; there's hope yet that pop radio can open more room for these two artists, who could shift mainstream music in a smart direction — the way that acts like Prince, M.I.A., Nirvana and Erykah Badu have in the past.

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