Image via Yousef Srour

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Yousef Srour says remastered ≠ better.

When EBK Jaaybo came onto the scene, his grisly voice and nonchalant humor immediately turned heads in the Central Valley and across the Bay Area. Breaking out before the COVID vaccine became readily available, the new star of the EBK HotBoiiz was initially confined to niche internet microcelebrity. The Stockton native’s most popular song to date from his debut, 2021, even eludes the virus with arrogant bravado: “That hoe sick, I dodge her like she got Corona, n***a.”

Despite pioneering the scene’s most reproduced style of sample drill, Jaaybo had no time to relish in his success. Three days before the release of his next full-length project, Letter 4 The Streets, Jaaybo was arrested on July 6, 2021. Jaymani Gordon served the next year and a half in prison for possession of a firearm, further removing him from the spotlight and the ability to promote his music.

Jaaybo regained his freedom on February 9, 2023, but only for two months. Another arrest occurred last April, which triggered a five-month bid in the San Joaquin County Jail. It meant that his first string of live performances wouldn’t occur until this past November, two years after his breakthrough, in which Jaaybo finally manifested his lyrics from “Apocalypse:” “Been in and out for four years, I’m tryna live it up.”

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Not realizing the magnitude of his first ever tour, I decided to stay at home on the day of his LA show, confident that he would perform another show in the area soon. Ignoring my optimism, when two more shows were announced in San Diego and Los Angeles in late December, Jaaybo was discreetly removed from the bill of the LA show. Concerned about the mysterious disappearance, I started to realize that the next EBK HotBoiiz show might be my only opportunity to see him in the near future. So with no plans on January 6th, I decided to make the trek to Fresno and see one of my favorite rappers in the flesh.

Three hours north of Los Angeles, two hours south of Stockton, and seven minutes down the road from the nearest In-N-Out lies the Azteca Theater in Fresno. Located in the outskirts of the city, banners attached to nearby lampposts allege that this had once been the city’s Historic Chinatown district, but nothing within reach feels well-preserved. Even that banner is now devoid of color, illustrating a dragon that has since lost its hue.

Since Northern California rappers travel to Fresno to almost exclusively perform at the Azteca Theater, you would assume that this would be a rap venue retrofitted with all the stops. With 200 minutes of spare time to daydream on the road, I pictured a wall-to-wall bar with shelves upon shelves of Hennessy. I imagined a merch table lined up with Thats A Awful Lotta Cough Syrup and company. Perhaps the General Admission area would be one gigantic floor built for mosh pits and brawls for the dollar bills that get thrown into the audience. At the bare minimum, I expected a smoking area, and if not a designated area, lax security guards that would turn a blind-eye.

Built in 1948, the Azteca Theater doesn’t look like it’s changed much since. Excited to finally escape the 46 ̊ cold, I rushed inside, quickly scanning the surrounding area for any sort of warm beverage for sale, but sadly I wasn’t in the mood for a school lunch. There were slices of Little Caesar’s pizza for sale, 1.5oz bags of chips, and soda cans – a dry venue to juxtapose one of the most inebriated group of concertgoers I’ve ever seen. The merch table didn’t have a single item under $50, and if you chose that screen printed shirt, I can assure you that the tag said Gildan.

In-between the walls of the Azteca Theater’s concert hall, the floor is a half-seated, half-standing room. Patches of soundproof insulation foam is barely sticking to the wall, the eggshell white paint has clearly been cracking for years, and as I leaned back into one of the seats to warm up, the orchestra seats were so unstable that I had to switch seats after nearly taking a plunge backwards.

At 10 p.m., I counted 22 people on stage as Verde Babii walked out to “2 Steppin,” a muted flip of J-Lo’s “If You Had My Love.” As the North Stockton rapper whispered his lyrics into the microphone, hundreds of iPhone-holding attendees screamed along, “She know that Verde matter,” quietly shrugging off in unison, “I am not a rapper.” The crowd roared along with ad-libs and deliberate exhales to match, bouncing the word “aye” as heads and hands bobbed up-and-down from the front to the back.

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Verde Babii’s time on stage continued for only a couple more songs, adding “Ella Mai” and “Slo-Be Flow” to his short setlist. It became clear early on that even the listed openers wouldn’t perform for more than ten minutes at a time; everyone seemed to be getting paid to make an appearance, and with the ever growing number of artists and affiliates flooding the stage, every person wanted a piece of the action.

The hosts of the evening, Yvnng Ecko and Shawn Eff, electrified the audience with their own theatrics. As the only rapper from Fresno proper, when Shawn Eff took the stage, everybody was singing along to his 2018 single with Mike Sherm and Nef the Pharaoh, “Imma Dog.” Following that up with a tribute to the late legend, Bris, not a single soul kept quiet when “Panhandling” played on the speakers. It didn’t matter if you were on stage or rocking out in the audience, by the time that first line kicked in, everyone simultaneously cried “The suckers killed Ant, Pop, and Bub/That shit really hurt/EBK sent shots on every block, I got the city turnt.”

After a mandatory run through Bris’ Sacramento classic, “Back In Action (First 42 Hours Freestyle),” EBK Young Joc made his way to the front, adding an impressive 25 more people to the already packed stage. His crew immediately began throwing cash to concertgoers while Young Joc passed along his double-cup and tucked his XL joint from his lips to behind his ear. He performed one unrecognizable loosie before passing the mic along to Mac J for another tribute to Bris with their collaboration, “Adios.”

With short performances from all the openers, the most notable part of the evening thus far had been watching the number of people who’d pass their phones to whoever was on stage so that the artist could videotape themselves for Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, or whatever kids use to go viral these days. Most of the sets before Jaaybo were spent juggling microphones and handling fan’s phones.

Despite my personal meditations on virality and stan culture, I too pulled out my phone instantaneously when EBK Jaaybo hit the stage. Starting off his set with a wrath of vengeance, the anthemic “Apocalypse” had everyone swaying from side-to-side, matching the 50-plus bodies alongside Jaaybo on stage doing the Cat Daddy.

Continuing the rest of his set with quiet swagger, Jaaybo displayed a stoic demeanor. Almost taunting the crowd with a beckoning hand to give him more energy, Jaaybo ran through his set as smoothly as he was rolling his shoulders back while dancing to his own setlist. Running through “Mr. EBK,” “I’m On Shit,” “Step The Hardest,” “Clear It Out” and a couple others, it was hardly more than twenty minutes (if that) before Jaaybo played his last song: “Street Love Song (PTSD).”

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At this point in the set, you could tell that something was going awry. With his hood lifted over his head, EBK Jaaybo didn’t perform “PTSD” and you could tell that he clearly didn’t want the song to be playing either. Arguably the most sentimental songs in his discography, Jaaybo didn’t seem interested in reliving the trauma that defined the majority of his 2023. Although he never took his foot off the stage, Jaaybo stood there in silence, nodding in acceptance of the crowd before him trying to remain as unaffected in the limelight as possible.

It seemed like the show was over after that. The lights were turned back on, Jaaybo hadn’t said a word for about ten minutes, and the only communication present were the mumbled voices drifting throughout the GA section. After a few minutes of confusion, EBK Jaaybo took the microphone once again to revive the crowd for one last song, declaring: “We gon’ turn up for Slo-Be real quick.”

With that, Jaaybo began rapping the final song of the night: Young Slo-Be’s “Don’t Kome 2 My Funeral.” As a longtime fan and the last person to have interviewed Young Slo-Be before his passing, this was a particularly heartwarming moment for me because I never had the opportunity to see Slo-Be perform live, let alone behold a room full of fans rap along to his every word. Even so, this iteration of the song had more bite, with Jaaybo making sure to emphasize every “ha-ha” adlib towards the end of the track. A thirst for retribution marked each onomatopoeia, and a sense of uneasiness began to slither into my stomach.

For the second time that night, right before the lights flickered on, EBK Jaaybo reiterated: “I’m not gonna lie, this is my last concert of the year. RIP Slo-Be though.” And just like that, the light flooded the hall and anyone who didn’t have a meet-and-greet package was asked to vacate the premises.

The concert took place on January 6th, less than a week after New Year’s Day and a little over two months since EBK Jaaybo’s last project, Sinners Prayer. Those in attendance began to grumble, a bit let down after traveling everywhere from Oakland to Los Angeles for roughly twenty minutes worth of rapping. How could this be Jaaybo’s last show of the year? It had only been six days.

It wasn’t until ten days after the show, on January 16th, that EBK Jaaybo was remanded to San Joaquin County Jail with no bail set and nothing scheduled. In hindsight, Jaaybo’s reaction to “Street Love Song (PTSD)” now makes total sense. He’s notorious for releasing full-length projects that showcase raw emotionality in lieu of his singles’ braggadocio; his pain is private, tethered to studio sessions and confidential conversations. For the Nightingale rapper, trauma is no spectacle.

My eyes are burned with the afterimage of Jaaybo standing over the crowd, numb to his own successes, holding himself back from the few lyrics that hint at his everpresent anguish: “Even a thug be in his feelings/F*ck love, I’m reminiscin’ bout them killings.”

Now, it’s clear why EBK Jaaybo ended the show with that haunting rendition of Young Slo-Be’s final song from his final release. As he swapped Slo-Be’s original adlibs for a vindictive, “That N****a dead,” Jaaybo led everyone in the Azteca Theater to howl “ha-ha” together, laughing in the face of fate.

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