The anticipation was a thick as Rick James’ braids as eager fans waited in the lobby of Radio City Music Hall for the eighth night of a 10 night engagement from sketch comedy legend Dave Chappelle.
Nobody had attempted to fill the void that Chappelle left after he decided to walk out on a $50 million deal to pump out a third season of his immensely popular “Chappelle’s Show“ for Comedy Central seven years ago. After a brief but spirited opening set by friend Donnell Rawlings (who most know as Ashy Larry from the show), that particular void in the comedy universe was about to be filled again.
His looming silhouette on the back of a white tarp immediately let us know we were in for quite a ride. Dressed in a tailored grey suit and sporting a much bulkier build, Chappelle, looking more confident and mature than ever before, walked to the mic stand to thunderous applause. Our comedic savant had returned.
Chappelle wasted no time getting into his set which covered a variety of topics, from LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling‘s infamous rant to gay rights to his unexpected relationship with his dog, Baba. Chappelle had the audience hanging on his every word the whole night, even as some of his material, particularly about gay rights, devolved from smart commentary to lowest common denominator punchlines.
Chappelle has always had a distinctive gift for storytelling, elaborate setups that result in left hooks when you expect gut punches and minus that aforementioned brief lull, he was in fine form throughout the night. There was no way that he could live up to years of anticipation after “I’m Rick James, bitch!” and he was aware of that. He brought the humor and the fun anyway.
After the debacle that was his performance in Hartford, CT, I became nervous when members of the crowd began shouting Rick James lines at him and drunkenly asking him to “Take it off!,” but Chappelle was playful, vamping and feeding off of that energy and seemingly enjoying himself while doing it.
Less successful, however, were the musical acts Chappelle had booked for the night. Legendary Gang Starr producer DJ Premier attempted to get the crowd started early on, but the crowd wasn’t receptive. Even with a 45-piece orchestra, the sound quality was muddled and incomprehensible, so classics from Gang Starr and previous Chappelle co-headlinder Nas lost their flavor.
Busta Rhymes showed up in a red leather outfit and matching cap looking to set things off with MC Spliff Star, and they definitely got the crowd out of their seats, but their set was too short at only 4-5 songs and the sound system continued to drown out any chance to hear vocals. Chappelle came back on stage one more time to introduce the headlining music act, Janelle Monáe. Monáe brought the energy and the newly leveled out sound let us hear her and her rock/R&B backing band mix with the orchestra.
Even so, that wasn’t the main point of this 10-day engagement. Last night was dedicated to the return of a comedy legend from seven years of silence, and with the exception of some surprisingly off-color jokes, Chappelle’s set was at once a return to form and something new: informed, honest, juvenile at times, but all coming from a place of newfound life experience. Here’s hoping that it won’t be another seven years till we hear from him again.
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