Grammy Nominations 2017
Spooky Black & The Stand4rd Prove They're No Bedroom Project at SOBs
"This is a legendary motherfucking night," roared DJ Khaled, onstage in a black fur-collared leather coat and enough gold and sparkles to drown a man. One of hip-hop's reigning polymaths had come to SOBs in Lower Manhattan to introduce to the city, and the world at large, the mercurial young singer Spooky Black and his St. Paul collective, The Stand4rd. But Khaled didn't know what he was talking about, really. It's their first tour.
Thirty minutes before taking the stage, in the basement of SOBs, a colleague asked Spooky Black if he -- personally unknown to the public except for mixtapes released with no promotion -- was nervous for the sold-out show he was about to play. "Not really," the 16-year old said quietly. It was obvious he meant it, standing confident and nonchalant in a t-shirt for a logging company. The packed room had come out of curiosity, to see if this mysterious young prospect could bring his amber vocals, flowing and full on tape and largely responsible for The Stand4rd's nascent celebrity, to the stage. He was far from his computer in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Khaled was in the building largely based on the title of a bonus track to Spooky Black's EP Leaving, uploaded to SoundCloud three months ago. "dj khaled is my father" -- a ballad of soft, dissonant guitar sweeps and Spooky's voice: full, smooth, well beyond his years and no hint of a mid-pubescent voice crack -- was the only choice for an opener. "Wassup New York," he said immediately after the guitar cut out, to a roar of Beatlemania. The show was part of a handful of dates for The Stand4rd (consisting of Spooky, producer, rapper and singer Bobby Raps, producer Psymun and the monotoned rapper Allan Kingdom). It also served as the fulmination of Spooky and company's internet-borne celebrity, a powerful mystique constructed from little (though just enough to be endlessly intriguing) background given to their ever-increasing fan base. What they have shown the public has been mediated strictly through their art. There are a handful of MP3s and videos, notably "Without You," a foundational piece of tape that sees Spooky switching between a white and black turtleneck, du-rag and gold chain, singing smooth and lovelorn and laid out like a tiger cub, or walking through in the empty grey winter landscape of Minnesota.
That desolate setting has no doubt played a large part in The Stand4rd's compelling eccentricism that lies somewhere within the common ground of rap and R&B and the blue glow of a computer screen. Minnesota's winters are unending when you're in them, crushingly cold, enough to put a person just shy of insane. It's an environment that would cause -- force, in a way you have to experience to understand -- a group of restless, creative teenagers into the petri dish of each others' basements, armed with a pirated copy of Pro Tools, and end up releasing songs back-to-back that both sample Ginuwine and sound like a Barry White b-side. (Poetic, then, that back home in Minnesota the snow had begun falling the night they took the stage in New York.) The group cites winter like a totem, with projections of those white-and-black forests behind them throughout the show. They reference it frequently in their music; "as frozen as these lakes," goes the punchline to one of Bobby Rap's verses, a play on their state's motto, "Land of 10,000 Lakes." What makes the difference here is both the tools available to this internet-native new generation, and the talent on hand. Spooky's voice is real and lovely, and his crew's songs, while undeniably tongue-in-cheek at points, never overflow into satire.
That voice is no studio-based illusion, confirmed by the crowd at SOBs when Bobby Raps asked whether "this dude can sing in real life or what." A swell of shrieks assented. The industry was curious, too. Martin Mills, legendary head of Beggars Group who brought the world both Adele and Gary Numan, was in attendance, as were major label reps and Melo-X, a producer for Beyoncé.
So was Spooky's family. The merch booth attendant didn't seem to fit the crowd. Nor the woman to his left, wearing a button-down tucked into her chinos. When I asked of their relationship with the collective, he explained that he was part of Spooky's extended family, a cousin, and that several other members had come from various east coast towns to support their young family member. None had seen him live before. You wonder what they thought of their midwestern blood.
Spooky Black couldn't be bothered to return to the stage for a celebratory photo op, at DJ Khaled's pleading, following their second encore. The new legend walked off stage and stayed there.