Hip-hop shows at The Complex are a feast for the senses. I like to drink it in like it’s a chilled glass of Alizé. Weed smoke and grocery store body spray form an atmosphere as thick as any inversion in February. Brawny men in wife beaters strut their stuff. Tattoos tell stories.

I scored a place on the balcony where I could marvel at all the muscles. A popular song by Rae Sremmurd, “No Flex Zone!” played on the loudspeakers. A small mosh pit broke out.

The first three acts were all affiliated with Pro Era, a loose collective of musicians of which Joey Bada$$ is the most notorious member. Among the openers was a charismatic MC called CJ Fly. He had a casual but strong presence, and looked stylish even in sweatpants. The crowd loved him. He never wasted an opportunity to interact with his fans. At one point there was a call and response that went something like:

CJ Fly: “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”
Crowd: “I don’t give a shit!”
CJ Fly: “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”
Crowd: “I don’t give a shit!”

It feels silly to say this now, but at the time those words spoke to me. There was another moment too, when CJ Fly wanted to perform something special for the ladies. “Where they at?” he asked until it was no longer rhetorical.

That too struck a chord.

Fly’s song for the ladies was about getting a room. “Regulate” it wasn’t. Like everyone before him, Fly’s set was brief. He left the stage with little fanfare, just a hearty thanks to Salt Lake City. By the time he was gone, the DJ was already playing more Rae Sremmurd.

“Bad bitches is the only thing that I like,” the crowd hollered waving their arms above their heads.

As Vince Staples took the stage I thought about what an interesting time it is in music right now. Staples just released a fine EP, his first commercial release and his first for Def Jam, Hell Can Wait. Before that, Staples, like Bada$$, had no official releases of his own. That isn’t to say they haven’t made exceptional music—both artists have superb mixtapes. It’s just worth noting that the the hip-hop climate is such that even great artists must give away music for years before ever hoping to make an album.

To make up for this hurdle, hip-hop has become even more collaborative than jazz was in its heyday. Established artists make a habit of bringing in up-and-comers on their albums. Both Staples and Bada$$ were on high-profile features last year that acted as spring boards for their career. For Bada$$, it was A$AP Rocky’s already classic, “1 Train.” A song that earned it’s double-entendre of a name with a litany of A-listers who provided monster verses—Danny Brown, Big K.R.I.T. and Kendrick Lamar to name a few—Bada$$ was as good as any of them.

For Staples, it was a collaboration he did with an old friend of his, Earl Sweatshirt—another MC who benefitted greatly from a well-placed feature.

In any case, Staples gave it his all in blue suede sneakers and a Wu Tang hoodie. He did several cuts from his excellent mixtape, Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2. Salt Lake shrugged. What a shame. Watching him perform, I couldn’t shake the impression that making it has never been more difficult. He performed some of this year’s freshest hip-hop, and the response was a collective yawn. His body language as he walked off the stage told me he was disappointed.

After Staples, a new DJ took over. He was a big fellow who confidently introduced himself, “I’m DJ Statik Selektah, the show off.” Before the crowd had a chance to react, he asked, or to be more accurate, he didn’t ask, “can we take it to NYC one time?” Then with a sonic boom, he treated the us to some classic Nas. It was perfect.

Several mixes later, Joey Bada$$ pounced up onstage and was greeted with the roar of 400 scantily-clad West Valleyians. He blew through several songs, but it was when “1 Train” dropped, that the audience really blew their load.

“They seen my pigment and thought it was the ign’ance / Unfortunately I ain’t that type of niglet.”

Statik Selektah proved to be an invaluable presence in the set. He provided crucial rapping duties and some of the most technical DJing I’ve seen in some time. At several points, Bada$$ brought his whole crew up on stage—it seems he’s determined to drag the entirety of Pro Era up with him.

I’m not convinced it’s a good idea. One sees more than they’re meant to from up in the bar at The Complex. I saw Bada$$’s crew filming a video backstage as he performed. They hammed it up for the camera, bounced around, rapped along, pushed each other around and generally made complete asses of themselves. I envied their youth and pitied their stupidity.

Bada$$ told the crowd about his upcoming album. He said it was finished, but might not come out for a couple months. He said he put his whole heart into it.

I got the sense that Bada$$ wasn’t taking anything for granted. At the end of his set he thanked the crowd with a refreshing sincerity. As I walked out, I was again struck by how difficult a hustle hip-hop really is. Sure, people were clamoring around the booth to buy some swag. But to get theirs, Bada$$ and Staples have given away more great music than most artists have ever sold.