While performing his song “Numb” at New York’s Irving Plaza on Monday night, August Alsina tottered and fell of the edge of the stage. The band might’ve thought it was an accident, because they kept playing for a minute. After some confusion, the DJ came back on to play a few songs. Eventually, he announced that the show would not resume, and paramedics made their way backstage to attend to the singer.
But prior to his tumble, Alsina commanded the crowd at the sold-out show. Taking the stage in a hooded cape and sunglasses and working with a cheerfully noisy band, he showed himself as one of the top R&B singers working right now.
Ten years ago, there was a clearly defined hierachy for men who sang R&B: Usher and R. Kelly were on top, and eveyone else scrapped it out beneath them. But these days, the playing field is more level, with former giants aging and everyone else competing in a much tougher environment. In this climate, a talented newcomer can make a quick rise, and that’s what happened with Alsina, riding on the strength of two mixtapes and an EP. Testimony, his major-label debut album, was one of the better R&B albums of the year.
The singer took the stage to the sound of “Make It Home,” a chilling tale with a hook more common in hip-hop than R&B: “If I don’t make it home tonight/ Tell my mama that I love her.” Alsina shows a level of compassion in his songwriting that’s rare not just in R&B, but in pop more generally. He followed “Make It Home” with “Get Ya Money,” which managed to hit hard while staying tender and again showing his empathetic side — “what you do and what I do ain’t different.” Many singers try to expand the gap between performer and audience; Alsina works hard to close it.
It’s a good idea for an artist to start a show with the things that separate him from his peers, and Alsina kept his charm offensive going throughout the short set. He drawled, “I must say I’ve got a thing for New York women,” displaying a keen awareness of crowd demographics (heavily skewed toward the ladies). He apologized for making people wait in line — though no one seemed to be holding that against him — and introduced himself suavely: “For anyone that don’t know me, my name is August Alsina, and it’s a complete f—ing pleasure to meet you.” Later, he thanked all the women who wore heels, which functioned as a clever segue into “Ghetto,” a song in which heels and everything else end up on the floor. He ably used the crowd as backing vocalists, picking and choosing the syllables he liked and letting everone else carry the rest of the tune. As thanks, he handed out roses.
Alsina augmented his backing tracks with a live band, and this group helped push several songs in new directions. “No Love” was transformed into a grand ’80s R&B ballad, with thunderous drumming and fiery guitar and Alsina looking out over the crowd like he was stranded on a ship, hoping to find land. The guitarist was crucial, pushing a couple of songs toward southern rock and others in the direction of gentle ’70s soul. During the last song, the DJ played a beat that channeled DJ Mustard, the bassist played funk, the guitarist soloed and Alsina crooned, all at the same time — gleefully chaotic and hard for a less charming singer to pull off.
But it was at this point that he fell off the stage. Security staff spent a lot of time examining the VIP area with flashlights, and after 15 or 20 minutes, they cleared a path for paramedics. Outside the venue, a large crowd re-formed around an ambulance. Soon that ambulance was joined by a second vehicle, and more paramedics entered the venue. Alsina showed that he’s a singer worth waiting for — and worrying about.