Rainbow Room, New York, May 10, 2019
Tierra Whack didn’t attend the Met Gala this year but it feels like, if she had, she would have completely shown up the stars who did and played it safe with their costumes. Days after the prestigious event, the Philly rapper is performing at another glitzy venue 33 blocks south of the fashion soirée as part of the Red Bull Music Festival. Underneath the decadent chandelier of the Rainbow Room, 65 stories high in the iconic Rockefeller Center, Whack emerges from a staircase at the back of the room and hops onto the mirrored stage, covered in bright green and blue.
Her dress is actually three dresses – a pinafore on its front, a shift on its back, and the whole thing together – while her right eye is fenced with a loose, squiggly flower shape in light pencil. Her head is covered in a cap with glittery eyes and a mouth attached to its back, meaning whenever the 23-year-old is facing the other way, there’s still some kind of face staring back at you. Even in a room surrounded by majestic panoramas of New York, she is the most eye-catching thing in sight.
“New York, we sold this motherfucking bitch out!” she exclaims before she gets down to the business of rattling through 19 tracks in just over 30 minutes. Big name rap stars might have a habit of only playing snippets of songs at their shows, but most of Whack’s material doesn’t pass the one-minute mark (her 2018 debut album ‘Whack World’ was 15 songs and 15 minutes long). Live, that has double the effect – that of leaving you wanting more and making it feel like you’re hurtling through the night. Combined with the brightly coloured popsicle sticking out of the right-hand side of the stage, you could easily be mistaken for thinking you’re far more intoxicated than you are while watching Whack perform.
For the most part, she plays ‘Whack World’ as it is on record, opening with the quiet ‘Black Nails’ into the bassy, low ‘Bugs Life’. There are moments of frivolous fun, like the alternative acronym-offering ‘Cable Guy’ or the languid twang of ‘Silly Sam’, and others that deal with heavier subjects, like the death of a pet (‘Pet Cemetery’) and bad men and bad dads (‘Fuck Off’). Even when Whack is tackling something more serious, though, she never loses sight of her playful spirit.
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Between tracks, she turns to chat to her DJ, Zach Whack, or leads the audience in a series of call-and-response that varies from the traditional (“When I say whack, you say whack”) to the silly (it’s proof of her goofy charm that she can get a room of New Yorkers repeating absurd noises for what feels like longer than most of her songs). “Oh, I see myself in the reflection!” She cries after the slower, jazzier ‘Waze’, distracted by catching sight of her bright ensemble in a mirror at the end of the room. She takes a second to assess herself, landing on a verdict that is likely shared by everyone in the room: “I look so fucking cool.”
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She tops her set with the standalone singles she released week-by-week earlier this year, finally reaching into multiple minute territory. The tripping ‘Wasteland’ and mumbled bounce of ‘Clones’ show their creator still has plenty of ideas even when she’s working in more conventional forms, but it’s ‘Unemployed’ that caps things in the brightest way possible. Whack leads the crowd in a chant of “Got a job I gotta do/I get down and dirty too” before the track kicks in, hyping the room up for one last time. With the dark beats pulsating beneath her, she puts all her energy into unleashing her flow once more, pacing the circular stage as she does so. As she told us herself on ‘Whack World’ highlight ‘Hungry Hippo’, Tierra Whack is “not your average girl.” Where legions of artists take themselves oh-so-seriously, she does the opposite and ends up coming out on top; a breath of fresh air and burst of vibrancy that’s fun, vital, and celebratory.
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