Rapper DaBaby lights up Val Air Ballroom stage in West Des Moines
This article has been updated with the correction of certain names.
When DaBaby took the stage at Val Air Ballroom Wednesday, it was as though a mirage had become solid, as if a rumor had suddenly revealed itself as fact.
The Charlotte, North Carolina, rapper's rising star is now cresting through the night sky, his recent album "Baby on Baby" and the single "Suge" both having reached No. 7 on the Billboard charts.
When he celebrated on Instagram the fact that five songs he's associated with are among the top 20 most played songs on Apple Music, he set "Downtown Des Moines, Des Moines" as the post's location.
At the zenith of his meteoric popularity, DaBaby put on a raucous and virtuosic performance in perhaps the most unlikely place in the nation: the dilapidated Val Air Ballroom in West Des Moines.
The event was conjured by Elite Sound Design, a small music and event production company based out of Iowa City. It's helmed by Brandon Miller, a Keokuk-born longtime Iowa City promoter who also goes by the moniker Shorty B, and Tyrell Thornton, a producer who also functions as operations manager.
When Miller first heard DaBaby back in April, the rapper was still an up-and-comer and a reasonable get for Elite Sound Design, when managing to get even medium-tier hip-hop talent can be tough in an off-route place like Iowa.
Between the time the show was announced and the night of the performance, DaBaby's debut album, "Baby on Baby," dropped with explosive novelty on the music landscape. He appeared as one of two features on Megan Thee Stallion's debut album — in many ways DaBaby's counterpart in style and technical proficiency. A week before the show, those two were the standouts in the XXL Freshman freestyle cypher performances, generating even more hype.
Booking a show at Val Air Ballroom presents its own challenges. With a capacity of 2,000, the historic space has been for sale since 2016 by its Michigan-based owner. The venue has little in the way of continuity when it comes to booking and marketing shows, leaving everything to the renter's grassroots hustling. The wooden ballroom floors and monochrome tile are scratched and faded; the ductwork and insulation in the ceiling sags.
With the right show — with the bodies packed together and good music playing loud — the lights go dark and the realities of the venue fade away.
When the doors opened and 1,500 people that would eventually press themselves up against the barricade began to filter in, the mood was already set by Iowa City's DJ T Max, who works with Elite Sound Design, and his accompanying MC, recent University of Iowa graduate Jahmiyah Austin, who kept the crowd engaged during the long build-up to DaBaby's appearance.
Then came Des Moines-based rapper Zeffterr, winner of a contest held earlier in the summer at Lefty's Live Music, who heavily represented his Critical Money record label.
Zeffter was followed by UVT and Fly Life. G Quick pumped the crowd up with his set. The final of four acts was T.J. Rhys and Torrian Ball, a Des Moines pairing that featured live guitar player Cooper Hopkins and DJ Paimon.
An hourlong DJ pump-up session separated the final local act and DaBaby. Eventually, DJ Kidd, DaBaby's personal DJ, appeared and began goading the crowd with call-and-response shouts to summon the long-awaited rapper.
DaBaby burst out onto the stage, piercing the air with his rapid-fire cadence. He and his supporting guest, rapper-friend $tunna 4 Vegas, paced about the stage, dropping down into the shallow rift between the stage and barrier.
The rapper's performance was as physical as it was lyrical. Diamond grills gleamed from upper and lower teeth when DaBaby flashed his broad smile matching his thick watch and heavy plate chain. When he removed his black T-shirt, leaving him in just red Addidas sweatpants, the crowd screeched in delight. At least one woman removed her top, which DaBaby encouraged before someone informed him it was an all-ages show and he walked the request back.
In its entirety, DaBaby's set lasted less than half an hour, bringing to mind the short set that disappointed some Cardi B fans at Wells Fargo Arena a few months ago. But the sheer velocity in his bullet-quick, smooth baritone bars made each minute of the performance to seemingly expand with electricity.
As soon as the last sub-bass note hit in his final song, DaBaby exited the stage, gone into the rain-soaked night. Those who had paid for a meet-and-greet opportunity would have to settle for a refund. After all, he was much more famous now than when they had purchased those tickets.
Aaron Calvin covers trending news for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 515-556-9097.
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