The crowd erupted. Slowly, a hooded figure emerged from behind his trademark flag logo with images of a drive down a dark mountain road flashing behind him. A pounding beat began to pulsate through the room, and the Fox Theater, which five minutes ago had been flush with the white noise of whispers and the glow of smartphones, was suddenly alive from the balcony to the floor as listeners stood up and screamed for the mysterious man of the hour: Zhu (stylized as ZHU).
Ever since his emergence a few years ago with his brilliant OutKast mash-up “Moves Like Ms. Jackson,” Zhu has remained an intriguing, puzzling figure in music. With his slightly melancholic, falsetto vocals, head-nod-inducing drums and masked public persona, he has attracted fans as much for his uniquely seductive sound as for his enigmatic presence. He professes to hiding his face to keep the attention on his music and the art that he creates, and for the most part that’s exactly what happened the night of April 26.
With a series of seamless transitions and the integration of live instrumentation and electronic sounds into his mix, at times the music blended together into one strung-out stream of provocative energy. While the crowd did its best to bring back the energy by cheering aggressively whenever a familiar hit came on — from “In the Morning” to “Cocaine Model” — the soundscape often ran the risk of sounding like a prolonged jam session where that one special ingredient seems just on the horizon but never reaches memorability.
Zhu’s music can feel transcendent when listening on your own, but live, it had a numbing effect. Breathy, liquid vocals dipped in and out of the mix to wake the crowd up, and occasionally the ecstatic speed of a drop offered release, but long stretches of Zhu’s set felt wrought with tension without the promise of a payoff.
During these pockets of space in his performance, it would have been easy to fall into a hazy, half-conscious state of equal parts adrenaline and fatigue. But the cryptic collage of images and moments flying by on the screen behind Zhu kept the crowd captivated. In the full-length feature film, foggy scenes of driving down lonely late-night roads, silhouettes swaying in a nightclub, illicit implications of an affair and even the details of a baby’s conception offered a glimpse into the place Zhu deems the “Neon City,” which his tour is named after. While listening to his music, with its overall smooth palate broken up by moments of buildup and explosion, we realize that we, too, have entered this city: a place of dreams, of possibility, of danger and of escape that we never really knew we had wandered into.
Spectators at the Fox Theater on April 26 seemed to have joined Zhu there by the end of the show. Couples who had begun by jumping and clapping had entered their own zones, lost in each other and the place they had entered. Jerky jumps at every drop and transition had changed to sways and sing-alongs. Then, Zhu pulled the rug out as he dropped arguably his two biggest hits — “Moves Like Ms. Jackson” and “Faded” — back to back.
Suddenly, the final twist in this story had arrived. Fans regained the energy from before and gave their all as the figure on stage began to pulse and dance with the rest of them.
For those few moments, Zhu had opened up another dimension. He had revealed to us this place where anything can happen, where the harsh gaze of neon offers the promise of love, lust and risk. The only regret of those in the crowd was not being able to stay there longer, to uncover more secrets about the music, the movie and the man behind it all.
Contact Kevin Lu at [email protected].