Photos by Christopher Polk/BET/Getty Images for BET
Schoolboy Q summed it up best.
“Y’all knees still bad? Old niggas with y’all Stacy Adams,” he said, chortling over Morris Day’s footwear of choice at Saturday night’s BET Experience concert. “I’m just makin’ fun of y’all ‘cause you love N.W.A. Me too.”
A couple years into the mainstream reign of Kendrick Lamar—hey, he made a frat house hit and he’s on a Taylor Swift single—the TDE crew had to have felt a little weird warming up an audience that planned to enjoy their comfortable seats in the Staples Center until the main attraction. Even I was surprised to see Lamar take third billing.
But this was the old-school, 3XL white tee-wearing, Rock the Bells crowd. Girls sported Eazy-E T-shirts and stoic dudes with head tattoos popped up only when the DJ played Suga Free’s “Why U Bullshittin’?” Drake’s Sprite commercial played during a break, and someone booed. With all due respect, they weren’t there for “King Kunta.” They were there for the first reunion of the first rap group to make LA a threat both musically and politically, N.W.A.
Lamar knew that. He kept his set, which began with “Money Trees,” the sleeper hit on 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city, tight. When he did talk, he did a roll call of South Los Angeles hoods before saying, “We never forget where we came from.”
Snoop Dogg has long floated between decades, whipping up frothy 70s sex tracks and wearing pimped-out furs as often as Crip walking and keeping a blue flag hanging out his backside. Maybe that’s why he seems so timeless. Or maybe it’s because his profile was secondary to Tupac’s and Biggie’s. Maybe it’s because Pharrell eased his transition into the 00s. Maybe it’s because he’s barely aged physically. Whatever the reason, he’s escaped the “old school” designation.
Still, that’s where he came from, and those guys know how to put on a show. Stage whisked free of instruments (God save us from rappers using live bands), a DJ booth slid into place and Snoop ambled out in a denim suit to “Gin and Juice,” cup in hand.
He always seems to be having more fun than anyone ever, and so he gets away with cheesy and/or dicey stuff very few rappers can these days, like Saturday night’s costumed mascot or dramatic mini-movie in which he advised “never trusting a bitch.” His set, which included classics like “Ain’t No Fun” and “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” was laid-back and lovable, just like he is. Kurupt and The Lady of Rage lounged on the onstage picnic tables and Snoop boogied with his dancers while Too Short performed the stripper anthem, “Blow the Whistle.” At the end, Snoop raised his hands and issued the Soul Train sendoff, “Love, peace and soooooul!” Your fave could never.
Finally, the moment this particular crowd had been waiting for arrived. Offstage, Ice Cube hollered his signature, “Yay-yayeee!” and it was on. Or so everybody thought.
Although not officially announced, it seemed obvious Dr. Dre would join Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella onstage. Maybe there would even be an Eazy-E hologram! After all, this would be N.W.A’s first performance in 26 years and the first time Ice Cube would play Staples Center. Dre’s protégé, Lamar, was on the lineup, too, and that seemed like a wink. Plus, Dr. Dre is a producer of the upcoming Straight Outta Compton film. If only for the marketing opportunity, surely he would show up.
We were collectively holding our breaths, hoping for the first punches of “Straight Outta Compton,” wondering if they’d break through a banner, football team-style. But Cube taking the stage with WC and Crazy Toones was the first sign that Dre was not in the building.
Listen, Ice Cube is a good performer. In recent years, he’s acted on film more often than rapped onstage (“Lotta people thought I was movie’d out”). Doing so means he’s had to draw all that energy in and become more nuanced and therefore smaller, but happily, he’s still able to expand and control a massive crowd. WC is an asset as Cube’s ever-energetic hype man. The two of them tore through much of Cube’s catalog, Cube sopping his brow and everybody bouncing. Still, there was an air of expectancy. When would they get to N.W.A.?
The lackluster intro—a trailer for Straight Outta Compton—signaled the fate of the rest of the night, and the first stutters of the 1999 “reunion” song “Chin Check” sealed it. Not starting with a bang seemed to say, “Hey, there’s no Dre, let’s not make too big a deal about this thing, OK?”
After another “reunion” song, “Hello,” they finally launched into “Straight Outta Compton.” While MC Ren was far less adrenalized than Cube and WC, his voice was strong and his breath control good. Though there were shades of “Trap Lord in stores” with the repeated pushing of the N.W.A. movie, they made up for it when they rode a police cruiser on stage as images of recent police brutality flashed on screens during “Fuck Tha Police.”
And then: “Give it up for MC Ren and DJ Yella!” Ice Cube shouted. That’s the end?
It wasn’t, but it probably should’ve been. Cube’s custom inflatable fingers threw up the “W,” and they ran through “Bow Down” and “We Be Clubbin’.” To their credit, they performed with gusto. Yet disappointment was in the air, and not even “It Was a Good Day” could stop the stream of people heading for the exits.
“Peace!” Cube called. Still, he stayed on stage, and I started to squirm, wondering how it must feel to stare out at the end of your first-ever performance at the Staples Center and realize even your most diehard fans didn’t last till the end. He thanked WC and Crazy Toones, and still he lingered. “Drive safe!” he hollered, and it dawned on me that no matter how much everybody else was ready, he didn’t want it to be over. “Thank you!”
Finally, he turned. “We out this bitch,” he said, walking into the darkness. And onstage, two glitter canons shot their loads, exploding onto no one.
Rebecca Haithcoat is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.