Empty Lights of Vegas See Soul Ever Uprooted

    Doesn’t matter who you are. Pushing the last stretch of Highway 15, that infamous glow in the distance — now, showered in neon glitter and Andrea Bocelli-scored fountain spray, engulfed in a cash-thirsty mob of leggy sequins, stale hairspray and bachelor bros — you cannot, you will not, resist Las Vegas.

    We certainly don’t. Arriving for the annual Guardian Vegas trip last Friday after a heavy dose of desert traffic, there seemed no happier place on earth: We blasted starry-eyed Frank Sinatra out the windows, sufficiently drowning blazin’-hot-hip-hop radio on all sides and letting a little Blue Eyes back out onto the Strip, immediately absorbed by cigarette curls and icy cocktails. Sinatra is Vegas. Want proof? Vegas: Live, a four-CD, four-hotel set from the original swingin’ lover, on which his every sharp, soaring note is weighted in hotel-bathrobe romance and schmoozy try-my-luck casino tables.

    Drowned-out radio aside, we’d popped in during what was quite the week for hip-hop in Vegas — having to do, no doubt, with the NBA All-Star game that weekend at Mandalay Bay. From cozy backpack rappers Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West and Little Brother to reigning Southern kings T.I. and Young Jeezy to indie-scene clubsters like Spank Rock and Girl Talk, they were all there. Most surprising, though, was the discovery that amongst these ridiculously priced, general public-shrugging shows was a lineup featuring the shooting stars of the genre, the hands-down best live hip-hop band on the planet: the Roots.

    Hate or love their music on record, the Legendary Roots Crew can turn the flattest beat/rap into a six-dimensional sonic boom on stage, each man breaking off into showy solos only to rise back up together in a grandeur that transcends hip-hop and ranks them top-notch in a greater musical scope. Their live show is something that every last hater should experience at least once. And the talent coming through Vegas is often of such caliber: at the moment, permanent highlights Prince and a stunning revival of the Beatles’ songs by the Cirque du Soleil company.

    Funny thing about Vegas is that despite its site-specific distinctiveness — where else can you walk from the Eiffel Tower to the Empire State Building to the Egyptian pyramids, then hop off a moonlit gondola right into Margaritaville? — the infamous Strip of Sin City is, almost by definition, void of its own culture. Sure, it’s got memories: Elvis’ bulging white suit, Siegfried and Roy’s little tiger accident, Hunter S. Thompson’s psychadelic masterpiece. But as the artists come and go, they quickly leave with any substance they brought; every last detail is an empty prototype, loved only for its historical idea. Even Vegas traditions, like the identity-shifting commercials and “”What happens here, stays here”” motto, rely on the constant that it’ll all soon be over. Listen a little closer, and the Sinatra that used to lark your Sunday mornings is a hollow romance, dancing cold cheek to cold cheek.

    Don’t get me wrong — I’m crazy about Vegas, and mostly for all the reasons I deem it false. But the idea of the Roots, usually so close to home, plastered up onto some VIP stage — the whole thing seemed so distanced and strange. I’m sure they were given a perfectly flashy backdrop and watched more beautiful faces dot the crowd than usual; but for once, I bet they also missed that dork at the front who yells along with every rhyme.

    And all so highly contrasted with the dirt-poor streetside, lined with “”HOT LIVE GIRLS”” T-shirted migrants handing out stacks of slut-cards, a mere five-second drop from the highest embassy suite. It’s the kind of thing — all shelled in the impermanence of this loveless place — that makes us ask for another drink. And we do.

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