Thick billows of acrid smoke engulfed the stage of the Palladium about an hour into A$AP Rocky's sold-out concert on Friday night.
A young Harlem-born rapper whose next-big-thing status in New York hip-hop mirrors that of Kendrick Lamar in L.A., A$AP Rocky had quieted the room and was attempting to start some kind of birthday presentation for one of the show's openers, Schoolboy Q.
Suddenly, both men -- as well as a cake topped with burning candles -- disappeared inside an enormous cloud that moved in from stage right. A$AP Rocky decided that someone had sprayed a "fire distinguisher," as he put it, and began demanding that the perpetrator show him or herself.
The episode seemed briefly as though it might escalate into a replay of a notorious gig at this spring's South by Southwest conference in which the rapper and his crew leapt into the audience after being pelted with a beer can.
But that was seven months ago, before A$AP Rocky joined Rihanna for a performance at MTV's Video Music Awards and released an unprintably titled single with Drake and 2 Chainz. No longer the reckless street denizen depicted in the videos for his early songs "Peso" and "Purple Swag," A$AP Rocky today has something to lose.
So at the Palladium he and Schoolboy Q (of Lamar's Black Hippy group) retreated backstage for less than a minute, then returned once the air had cleared to finish the concert.
"Since [people] like smoke," A$AP Rocky said in more emphatic language, "let's teach 'em how to really roll up some smoke." He was offering reconciliation in the form of Schoolboy Q's "Hands on the Wheel," which begins, "Life for me is just weed and brews," and the capacity crowd happily accepted.
Friday's show reflected the delicate position A$AP Rocky finds himself in: somewhere between an underground sensation with millions of YouTube views and a mainstream star with a major-label debut due out soon.
Performing material from his impressive 2011 mixtape "LiveLoveA$AP," he could be thrillingly aggressive, as in the thunderous "Brand New Guy," and appealingly laid back, as in "Trilla," which coasted atop a cool tremolo-guitar line.
"Peso" was sharp and plush at the same time, while "Kissin' Pink" summoned the medicated wooziness of Houston's so-called chopped-and-screwed scene.
He was an effective bandleader, too, marshaling his seven-man A$AP Mob (and a DJ) through cuts from the group's recent "Lords Never Worry" mixtape. "Black Man," in particular, felt like a beam of focused intensity, as did another song with an unprintable title that featured the wily Detroit rapper Danny Brown, who also performed on Friday.
But stretches of this concert had the numbing feel of compromise, such as the lumpy love song "Purple Kisses," which A$AP Rocky introduced by admitting he doesn't normally rap about romance. He seemed equally adrift in a series of prerecorded voiceovers -- set to Vietnam-era pop songs and the slicing sound of helicopter blades -- about fighting a war to be understood; the concept remained elusive and out of reach.
These moments felt especially weak compared to the electricity Lamar channeled in a guest appearance during Schoolboy Q's opening set. Wearing an all-leather outfit that Schoolboy Q likened to Martin Lawrence's in "You So Crazy," Lamar ripped through the first half of his song "Backseat Freestyle" with the kind of live-wire energy that demands attention.
Then again, Lamar's job on Friday was easy: a minute or two of music, essentially, at the end of a week in which the release of his album dominated music news.
In front of an adoring audience but behind an imposing wall of hype, A$AP Rocky was tasked with sustaining that frenzy over the course of nearly 90 minutes. He was there to prove that where there's smoke there's fire.