Although the line outside last night's performance—a celebration of the 10th Anniversary of The Diplomats' debut LP Diplomatic Immunity—stretched down 42nd Street in Times Square, the venue, B.B. King's, was a smaller space that Dipset would have been accustomed to during their heyday.
The first time the Diplomats reunited, in 2010 after a long period of internal and external struggles, they packed the much larger Hammerstein Ballroom.
Still the crowd at B.B. King's enjoyed a raucous, fast-paced show that didn't end until well after 2 A.M. Waka Flocka and Lloyd Banks both graced the stage at the show's conclusion to pay tribute. The audience was more fitted cap than snapback; there was a clear generational break between the '70s and '80s babies who dominated the audience and the fanbase of A$AP Rocky, currently the biggest brand name coming out of Harlem.
Although Dipset's songs resist sentimentalizing and the devoted audience was in celebration mode, the night was bittersweet. There's no denying the fact that Cam'Ron and co. have joined the ranks of nostalgia acts, becoming niche interests for fans reminiscing on the group's creative and commercial peaks.
DJ Funkmaster Flex opened with a mini-set of Tunnel bangers, talking up how dangerous the crowd was that night, and joking about scared white people in the audience. But his bravado was undercut with a sense of self-awareness and irony. There was no real sense of menace in the room, just a faint scent of weed smoke and the aging survivors of a more tumultuous era in New York's history.
The crew hit the stage around midnight to the strains of "Ground Zero" from Diplomatic Immunity. Jim Jones stood out, resplendent in a floral-patterned red and white jacket and a glittering diamond bracelet. The others were dressed in more subdued style compared to the flamboyance of the crew's early-00s emergence.
Jones stood out, resplendent in a floral-patterned red and white jacket and a glittering diamond bracelet.
The show included a brief set from J.R. Writer, which was followed by extended solo performances from Jim Jones, Juelz Santana and Cam'ron, before the crew reunited (along with Freekey Zekey) at the end to cover the hits.
Jones, objectively the least skilled of the three solo stars, has done a lot more with less. By choosing talented collaborators, he's remained relevant the longest, shepherding his Byrd Gang and releasing a series of successful independent albums. (He saved his biggest hit, 2006's "We Fly High," for the end of the night.) Highlights of his performance included the underrated 2005 single "Summer Wit Miami," and a run-through of his part on "Byrd Gang Money." He was joined on stage by Sen City, a singing, hook-writing rapper who's been responsible for the sound of much of Jones' recent material.
If the Capo has tended to outperform expectations, Juelz Santana's career is at once the most promising and the most disappointing. After 2005's What the Game's Been Missing! LP, Santana's boyish looks and evident star power seemed likely to propel the rapper to the next echelon; instead, he went eight years without a solo release. His latest mixtape, God Will'n, has gone largely unacknowledged; it also provided some of the most contemporary-sounding moments in last night's show.
But the fresh, youthful approach of his early career—especially evident on "Hey Ma," which Santana mugged his way through with comic irony—has given way to a game of catch-up. Songs like "Soft," which features Rick Ross, Meek Mill and Fabolous, chase trends rather than setting them.
Santana was at his most effective performing his verse from "Both Sides," which, on his tape, also features Chicago rapper Lil Durk. Juelz seems to identify with the youthful vigor of these cocky street-rap upstarts, or at least see in them a kindred spirit. He also quotes Chicagoan Lil Reese on "Nobody Knows," a melancholic track that suggests feelings of betrayal and disappointment. His earnestness and sincerity made for an unexpected emotion at a Dipset show. Though unfamiliar with the material, the audience was attentive. If the Dipset faithful identified with Jim Jones as an underdog who made good, they were equally moved by Santana's tantalizing suggestion of what might have been.
But soon the party returned to full-tilt, as Cam'ron rounded everything out with an energetic set full of fan-favorites ("Get Em Girls," "Killa Cam") before segueing into the show's final run, going through some of the crew's biggest hits: "Pop Champagne," "Gangsta Music," "Crunk Musik," "Dipset Anthem," "I Really Mean It," and the more recent "Salute."
As the crew exited the stage while the DJ dropped Drake's latest hit, Jim Jones was suddenly inspired. "Started up in Harlem now we here!" he shouted. "Started up in Harlem now we here." For the Diplomats, that statement speaks as much to the paths they've taken as it does where they ended up.