“Your mom, she sits while her hair is in curlers/Smokes weed and listens to that Garrison Keilor/That’s how I’ll live when I quit my rap career,” Yoni Wolf crooned during “Strawberries,” clarifying a few things about how we might consider what he does with his Berkeley-based band WHY?
First, Wolf identifies as a rapper but it doesn’t seem right to think of WHY? as a hip-hop group. The quintet supplemented the standard guitar-bass-keys with two drum kits, each equipped with xylophones, which figured prominently in the palette for “Strawberries,” as did handclaps and whistling—not exactly your classic boom-bap formula. Sparing the audience any kind of OG rap posture, Wolf spent the set alternating between half-sung choruses and spoken-word-style rap verses, all set within a bed of twee indie pop. If Sufjan Stevens tried to make a rap record, it would probably come out sounding a bit like WHY?
While Wolf may muse, like Jay-Z, about the day he quits the game, his image of retirement is decidedly more NPR than anyone who gained their street cred hustling crack. If Wolf is a playa’, it’s of an existential game where regret, longing, guilt and anxiety form the lyrical terrain, not the classic hip-hop tropes of survival, style and conquest. On more than two songs, he referred to the shifting priorities as one crosses into his early 30s, looking ahead to death “as a card in the deck to be played when there are no other cards left.” When the approach doesn’t come off as nasal and white-bread—sounding at times like a more-literate Cake—Wolf’s rhymes can be incredibly refreshing and thought-provoking. “Paper Hearts” was the closest he came to a Slug-style spite rap, forgoing a verse-chorus formula for one incredibly dense screed escalating to a dangling consideration of “preemptive nostalgia of the possible but doubtful.” As if to let the audience ponder the concept, the song suddenly broke into a lush orchestral pop outro and a wistful lyric about remembering a former lover. Hardly Kanye-style braggadocio and misogyny.
Wolf has been at this for a decade and a half, and in that time he’s corralled a small but devoted group of followers who can parrot back his compound metaphors and wordy confessions verbatim. For this, it would be easy to discount what his band members contribute, as they too often felt like the backing act. Yet, were their frontman holding a guitar, they’d likely be considered one of the most dextrous and innovative groups in indie rock. Which made the presence of rising Texas indie rocker Sarah Jaffe welcome as an opening act. It’s relative unknowns like Jaffe who make the dominance of middling genre icons like Beach House feel happenstance and due for unseating.