Sensory Overload: Senseless, iSojah and more highlight a weeknight at Bernie's

Andy Downing, Columbus Alive

Senseless, aka Jacob Engle, kicked off a Tuesday evening of hip-hop at Bernie's by going shoeless to perform "Bare Feet," a brave decision considering the venue's scuzzy reputation.

Favoring enthusiasm and energy over clock tower precision, Senseless' short set came on like a blind contour line drawing - wild, untamed lines gradually forming recognizable shapes. It was an unshaven approach reflected in everything from his bearded countenance to his gruff, wooly voice, which alternated between a rasp and a rapid-fire bark as he worked his way through the material.

Though his unhinged vocals demanded attention, the songs tended toward slumped-shoulder introspection rather than chest-out boasts. On "Art Hertz," the MC touched on his hard-luck ways, labeling himself the kind of guy who'd "catch a DUI when stone-cold sober." Yet at their core, cuts like "Gene" projected a sense of optimism - "Things are pretty good, even though they appear not," he surmised - that carried over into the genial, thrilled-to-be-here presence Senseless carried onstage.

If Senseless' vocals walked an unpredictable path, iSojah moved with the digital precision suggested by his name, appearing in complete control even in that moment he described himself as a "bonfire gone rogue."

While other rappers on the bill approached the showcase like a rehearsal, iSojah, born Joe McCaskill, treated his short set like an arena performance - appropriate, considering he turned out one song where he envisioned himself standing center stage in front of a sold-out crowd - inviting a handful of collaborators to help flesh out the songs, including singer Kennisha Johnson, who delivered a rare mellow hook on an R&B-tinged number.

Elsewhere, iSojah resisted slowing down - "The first verse is my hook," he said of his word-loving approach - throwing himself into the music because, as he posited in a rare unguarded moment, "you gotta keep moving through that pain." Rather than surveying the wreckage, however, the rapper focused on reconstruction, noting things only "get worse when you scatter" and stating straight up that it was "time to rebuild."

J.U.S.T. followed with his first-ever solo performance, flashing Samuel L. Jackson's righteous anger on one song about the music industry ("If hip-hop is dead then I'm just looking for the closure," he spit) and scattering autobiographical lines amid mentions of movies like Hitchcock's "The Birds" and "Wayne's World," which provided one playful cut with its memorable "we're not worthy" refrain.