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Review By: Noah Haynes-Brooks | Photos By: Nick Coughlin

For Fans Of: Run the Jewels, A$AP Rocky, Chance the Rapper, Danny Brown, Joey Bada$$, Big K.R.I.T.

Rapper Action Bronson made his triumphant return to Portland Saturday night, arriving onstage at the Wonder Ballroom to the tune of “Don’t Stop Believing,” dense smoke trailing from a blunt clutched in his fist. As the Journey anthem swelled in the background, the mountainous chef-turned-rapper from Queens prowled back and forth across the stage like some long-lost People’s Champ coming home to defend his title. I found myself reminded of — bear with me, here — the series finale of The Sopranos, when “Don’t Stop Believing” soundtracked our tense final moments with that show’s antihero, our guts twisting in anticipation of catharsis only to be met with a sudden cut to black.

Flash back to the last time Bronson was in Portland, smoking a blunt on stage. That show ended with the concert equivalent of a sudden cut to black when a Roseland security guard’s decision to escort Bronson off stage resulted in a headlock, shoving, and a swift mid-show cancellation. The incident made news on music blogs and gave lie to the notion that the talent is always right. I’m willing to bet it also righteously pissed off Bronson, or at least gave him a score to settle.

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Thankfully for the fans who shelled out big bucks on last night’s sold-out show, Bronson smoked his first blunt safely, and the show proper was ready to begin without any onstage fisticuffs. Bronson hit big out of the gate with the one-two punch of “Brand New Car” and “The Rising,” the same combo that kicks off his new major label debut, Mr. Wonderful. It was nice to see that the trademark tossed-off vibe of Bronson’s tapes is still very much accounted for live, with Bronson coming to a sputtering halt toward the end of “Brand New Car,” coughing and apologizing for the fuck-up. It’s a sly trick that ensures the expectations for a Bronson joint never reach unreasonable heights. The rapper knowingly trips over his words and self-deprecatingly reminds you that he only kinda sometimes takes this rap shit serious, so why not chill the fuck out about it already.

It’s this slacker-with-a-mic ethos that informs Mr. Wonderful, and perhaps accounts for the no-frills one-hour setlist and lack of an encore (although he did stick around to sign hats, which are evidently not in short supply among the Bronson faithful). But that’s what one would reasonably come to expect from Bam-Bam if you’ve been even remotely following his exploits, musical or otherwise. He’s not beholden to the agonizing quality-control standards of rap’s obsessive auteurs like Kendrick Lamar, Drake, or Danny Brown. He’s more comfortable applying his tremendously dextrous tongue to a more modest and languorous pallet of tunes. Bronson may just be the best rapper in the room, but he’ll be damned if he lets you catch wind of it.

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The show was a success of Bronson proportions, high on its own energy but careful not to overstay its welcome. Openers Meyhem Lauren and DJ Ozroc helped bolster the night and validate the ticket price, and The Alchemist provided a necessarily grounding presence on the boards. There were plenty of grace notes to please long-time fans, with the welcome inclusion of tracks from his Blue Chips 2 tape (“The Don’s Cheek,” “It Concerns Me”), cameos from his indispensable hype man Big Body Bes, and half-bitter reminiscences (“This is about where it ended last time” he quipped mid-way through “The Don’s Cheek,” in reference to last year’s incident).

The set ended with “Easy Rider,” a song which Bronson recently described to Mario Batali in an episode of his web show Fuck, That’s Delicious as “the culmination of my entire career up until now”. Fitting for a man of Bronson’s ambitions, the song ends with him repeating the line “ride the Harley into the sunset,” which became the fist-raising chant that ended the show. With the sound of engines revving in the background, and a cloud of weed smoke perfuming the air once more, Action Bronson walked off stage, this time without the help of any overzealous security guards. Certainly a better way to end than a cut to black. I can only assume he never saw the end of Easy Rider, the great Dennis Hopper film from which his song borrows its name. Or maybe he did, and just chose to re-write the ending.

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