Raury Brings His Unique Mash Of Genres To The Highline Ballroom: Live Review

Live At The Highline Ballroom
Brad Barket/Getty Images

Raury, a 19-year-old singer-songwriter, emerged in 2014 with a story like an artistic fairy-tale. He played foot-stomping folk speckled with hip-hop, which seemed to situate him a long way from pop's center. But the center made room, scooped him up, and showered him with praise.

His calling card? His Indigo Child album. Raury didn't have a hit single, yet he still landed a contract with Columbia in record time -- so fast that there were mutters of his being an "industry plant." Everyone wants a piece of him now: this year, he was named a member of XXL's Freshmen Class, and played Manhattan's Highline Ballroom on Monday (June 22) headlining a triple bill of MTV's "Artists To Watch."

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It's odd that Raury was picked by XXL: he raps, but Indigo Child isn't a hip-hop album. Most rap today is mixed to hit with the force of a tank -- avalanches of crushing bass and manic, agitated hi-hats. The bass in Raury's music comes in gently, and instead of the hi-hat, he favors the kick drum.

Raury's most visceral moment as a rapper doesn't occur on his own album -- you'll find it on SBTRKT's artful Wonder Where We Land. SBTRKT has long shown a keen ear for collaborators, and he was smart to connect with Raury for "Higher." The track is a seamless mash: a reverential hook, vehemently rapped verses, and a gleaming, mechanized beat that could sit easily in dance or hip-hop.

This young troubadour and a wide-ranging electronic producer are kindred spirits. They both think in open, almost post-genre terms, although they use different tools. And this is why everyone wants and can claim Raury as one of their own, because he doesn't fit cleanly in one category.

But he fits more in some than others. What's the instrument you hear most on Indigo Child? The guitar. You could call his music rock-rap, but that term is mostly wielded as an insult. Think of Indigo Child as Georgia's answer to Ed Sheeran -- if Sheeran were raised on a steady diet of blues, gospel, and OutKast.  

At the Highline Ballroom, Raury's hip-hop side was muted: playing as part of a seven-piece band, the singer opened with "Chariots of Fire," a loping, chanting number that sounded southern-fried when performed live. His musicians and backup singers executed the precisely gridded steps of a soul band. The drummer treated his drums with no mercy -- always emphasizing the lowest sounds and practically rising out of his seat to summon extra strength.

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To match his old-fashioned rock foundation, Raury brought a '60s-like earnestness to his on-stage banter. He frequently flashed the peace sign (just like Yoko Ono at a MOMA event on Sunday). His rhetoric was part spiritual ("promise me you'll stay pure") and part hippie-coffee-house ("I make music for the revolutionaries and the dreamers"). This language of uplift is becoming more common: think of Kendrick Lamar's public embrace of an identity as a community role model.

Maybe Raury's home is really gospel, a genre full of easy sonic hybrids and a relentlessly positive attitude (even though he explicitly denies an interest in preaching on his new single, "Devil's Whisper," which he performed twice.) As the show neared its end, the singer assured the crowd that they were in command of their destiny, saying something to the effect of, "you always have a choice." At this point in his career, though, Raury has been able to exercise a different, and luxurious, option: not having to choose at all.