What a difference a year in hip-hop makes. Or not. In the early fall of 2011, when Das Racist played the packed Middle East, the multiethnic New Yorkers had just followed up two dizzyingly imaginative mixtapes with an even more potent album, “Relax.” Dismissing the rappers’ meta-referential wordplay as “weed rap” at that point seemed as ignorant as dismissing James Joyce as pornography.
Monday at Royale, however, the Cheech and Chong comparisons seemed more apt. Instead of ripping through “Relax” — or offering more than one new song — the crew simply relaxed, joshing and strutting through a 45-minute set that was both fun and funny, but hardly unstoppable. Opening with “Who’s That? Brooown!,” MCs Kool A.D. and Heems and droll hype man Dapwell focused on the high points of the mixtapes before closing with two “Relax” favorites, “Michael Jackson” and the remarkable “Rainbow in the Dark,” in which the free-association spew coheres into a dreamscape autobiography.
Live, unfortunately, the words cohered mostly into rhythmic mush, as does so much declamatory rap, leaving the laptop backing-tracks to carry the show. The young, fashionable crowd happily greeted every number, but the waving hands came down halfway through each song, and the club thinned to under a third full before the crew followed suit, accompanied by Tina Turner blaring “Simply the Best,” ironically. Or not.
Earlier, the trio’s pal Lakutis performed a short set of white-rap variations on Das Racist’s shtick, snidely testing the boundaries of taste, as is the white rapper’s burden. Far more impressive was openly gay black rapper Le1f (pronounced “Leaf”), who strutted, pirouetted, and bounced on bent legs while delivering an equally remarkable range of unconventional rap styles. His sexually charged raps were also largely lost in the mix, but from under-projection, not over-delivery. It gave him room to build the show through skittering, minimalist electro-beats into a deeper club thump until climaxing with “Wut,” an underground sensation that clinched the audience’s attention, as it has the year’s.