“I believe in keeping sh– classic” announced Tory Lanez during the middle his show at Webster Hall on Wednesday night — his first headlining show in New York City. Lanez, who hails from Toronto, wasn’t lying: He sang Bell Biv DeVoe during the performance; his Chixtape II mixtape, released earlier this year, sampled TLC and D’Angelo; Conflicts of my Soul, from 2013, included a snippet of the Mary J. Blige/Method Man hit “You’re All I Need.” But Lanez uses his affection for these songs as a cover for a more complicated project.
Lanez is a deconstructionist, interested in taking apart ’80s and ’90s R&B and using the elements to build his spare, powerful sound. Few singers would touch a track like Ginuwine‘s “Pony,” but Lanez shows no fear, transforming the song into “Ride,” a hollow shell of a tune that creaks at the knees. He doesn’t limit himself to the recent past either. “Henny in Hand” sounds like Lanez took a soul ballad and slowed it down as much as he possibly could without losing all forward momentum. Slow is the singer’s favorite speed. DJ Mustard is known for uptempo production, but when the two collaborated, the result (“Know What’s Up”) does not feel dance-friendly.
Lanez has one other trick up his sleeve. He is still best known as a singer — one of his highest-profile gigs to date was singing the hook on YG‘s “Me And My Bitch,” off My Krazy Life. But unlike many of his competitors making slow, lusty R&B — the Weeknd or Jeremih — Lanez raps and sings interchangeably, unwilling to commit entirely to either mode. While it’s standard for most rappers to sing these days, there still aren’t a lot of singers who rap.
At Webster Hall, Lanez started out primarily as an MC. Backed by just a DJ, he started with a couple of the more rap-heavy tracks that came out this year on the Lost Cause mixtape, and he bounded from one side of the stage to the other, windmilling his arms and displaying a rapper’s infectious energy. But as his vocals loosened up, he began slipping into song, blowing by his mid-range and heading straight for his agile falsetto. He’s at his most exciting when he’s ready to deploy both the weapons in his arsenal — suddenly changing direction for an a cappella freestyle or punctuating a tough rapped verse with a high, angelic croon.
He established an easy rapport with the crowd from the jump. Early on, he told his DJ to “drop the real sh–,” and the DJ threw on New York’s own Bobby Shmurda, allowing Lanez to win some NYC points and crowd-surf. (Afterward, he apologized “to whoever I just kicked in the face.”) He jokingly chided the crowd not to mess up when they were singing along. He also pitted the men against the ladies in shouting matches, wisely choosing to declare the competition a tie.
The DJ helped Lanez later in the set as well, throwing on Kanye West‘s “Slow Jamz” and then segueing into “Rain,” one of the most sexual songs on Chixtape 2. Lanez enjoys showing connections between classics from all eras — and he’s hoping to add a few new ones to the list.