'There is not a live performer more instilled with passion, intensity, and provocative intimacy in modern hip-hop or anywhere else in music...'
Evan Dale // Dec 2, 2019
It's almost an hour past the moment when doors were supposed to open when an Escalade pulls up to the Cervantes Otherside Theater. Out of it jumps SAINt JHN’s long frame, his head down, his eyes focused somewhere not in this reality, but in the reality of his music and the upcoming show. It’s either the cold or the crowd that snaps him back into frame for a moment just long enough to flash a smile in the audience’s direction and duck inside for a long overdue sound-check. With that interaction, the line that had been constantly complaining to security, incessantly shivering is quenched.
A half-hour later when everyone is finally filed indoors, the drastic warmth of the venue acts as a blanket. Even in a small brick theater, laden with chandelier lighting and moving with the bass of hip-hop hits sourced from the books of the past decade, a lull steeps the crowd in exhaustion.
SAINt JHN has his work cut out for him. But it doesn’t take long for him to get everyone back on his side.
Crooning into the microphone from some place off stage, he introduces himself with emotionality and perfectly tuned moans that have begun more than a decade’s worth of powerful Kid Cudi performances. And in so many ways, SAINt JHN – as a transcendent leader of an evolving moment in hip-hop history – will come to play a role as instrumental as Cudi already has. His fan base is already invested in their idyllic role model who claims not to be a cult leader. And anyone who’s been to a SAINt JHN show knows that such a clever little gimmick is a hidden-in-plain-sight kind of cover for what’s really going on.
There is not a live performer more instilled with passion, intensity, and provocative intimacy in modern hip-hop or anywhere else in music. SAINt JHN’s recorded work – his albums, his singles, his oft outrageous music videos and social media persona – build a fan base in search for a duality of realities impossible for any single artist to suffice. And yet, SAINt JHN, as a budding hip-hop overlord bubbling over with intensity, mastering a new look for the hyphy rap icon also fancies himself an emotionally in-touch vocalist, exploring the depth of his lesser-known talents to an extent that shines him under the light of an R&B star. An enigma if ever there was one, transcendent and with boundary.
SAINt JHN is braggadociously ferocious in his self-confidence. His one-off leather motorcycle jacket adorned with his signature caricature and his tour T-shirt with the same markings go missing by the fifth track. And why shouldn’t they? It’s what the audience wants and it’s what SAINt JHN – steeped in his own sweat – needs in order to continue giving the crowd everything he has.
Stripped, dripping he’s a model for his own fashion line – Christian Sex Club – the font of its elastic waistband framed between washboard abs and designer jeans. And in all of that glory, he’s ignorant to the fact that he’s more than himself. Ignorant forever.
He steps offstage and pushes his way through an admiring crowd. Pulling himself up on a bar top on the other end of the venue’s main hall, he gives a new side of his audience their own front row seats. He’s a man of the people. He feels the energy in the room, but it’s not enough for him. His intensity and ability to connect with every individual in his audience is what turns it up the next notch. A few tracks later – some taken from his 2018 debut album of high-energy hip-hop anthems, Collection One; others taken from his 2019 sophomore project of hip-hop adjacent R&B explorations, Ghetto Lenny’s Love Songs – he works his way back stageward.
Nearly 90 minutes from the moment he took stage, he urges the crowd to finally ‘turn the fuck up’ but finds himself unremittingly annoyed by an attention hungry fuccboi in the front row. In it, he sees a teachable moment for the young fan, for the intense crowd, and for himself as counselor – as leader of his emerging cult. Something like this addresses the audience:
‘Regardless of if everyone in this room became a fan of me a with 'Collection One' or with my new shit, we all came here for the same reason tonight. So, don’t fuck that up for me – don’t fuck that up for anyone in this room. Now let’s turn the fuck up for real.’
Again, he pulls himself off stage with a powerful hand on the young fuccboi’s shoulder, escorts him to the center of the crowd, instructs everyone around him to ‘open this shit up’, and starts a mosh pit. With himself at the center of it, there's again a feeling of solidarity, relatability, and collectivity. The cult knows its leader, and the leader knows what everyone in the room – including himself – wants not only from a hip-hop show, but from a SAINt JHN show in particular.
By the time he plays Trap for a third time, he’s back on stage, but never has an artist been closer to their crowd. And in that moment where he finally has everyone at his level – at his will – he says his thanks, disappears from view, and heads to take over the next city.