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A Taste for Partying Over Politics

Pop Music Review

Busta Rhymes leads a rap-act triple bill at the Universal Amphitheatre that's long on raucous, feel-good attitude but short on substance.

March 02, 2002|MARC WEINGARTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Anyone who attended the rap triple bill at the Universal Amphitheater on Thursday looking for a complex worldview or an evolved take on the usual hip-hop tropes would have been sorely disappointed.

Bubba Sparxxx, Ludacris and headliner Busta Rhymes all belong to hip-hop's good-times contingent, rejecting gangsta rap's sloganeering and the radical politics of critically lauded new acts such as the Coup in favor of raucous and frequently lewd celebrations of self-satisfaction.

Opening act Sparxxx, a protege of producer Timbaland, has attempted to carve his own niche as a good ol' boy with a rifle rack in his pickup and an occasionally piquant drawl in his delivery. Appearing onstage in a suede warmup suit--the de rigueur hip-hop wardrobe--the Georgian was a strident defender of debauchery in such songs as "Betty Betty" and "Ugly" and provided visual aid by frequently grabbing his crotch, just in case anyone couldn't parse the lyrical nuances. Sparxxx worked hard to get the crowd amped, but only his amusing redneck reprobate anthem "Bubba Talk" got a big rise.

Summoning crowd enthusiasm was not an issue for Ludacris, the Atlanta rapper whose frame of reference doesn't extend much beyond the windshield of his Mercedes. He's a chronicler of the urban prosaic, his raps the hip-hop equivalent of observational stand-up comedy.

Most of his songs were prefaced by "did you ever notice?"-style introductions, and the songs themselves stood up for prolific lovemaking, decried slowpoke drivers and dissed duplicitous women. A competent if uninteresting rapper, Ludacris elicited mass hand-waving eruptions with his nasty-goofy material.

Given the company he was sharing the stage with, Busta Rhymes came off like a deep thinker during his hourlong closing set. One of a handful of hip-hop performers who has endured for more than a decade, Rhymes has cleared a space all to himself as a silver-tongued vaudevillian with astonishing technique and bluster to spare. His current album, "Genesis," seems to be a move toward a more reflective, if somewhat confused, songwriting approach, but the inner prankster is not that easily suppressed.

Starting his set with a few tracks from the record, which seems to be some kind of live-free-and-multiply manifesto, Rhymes charged through his long string of hits, which are among the most entertaining in contemporary hip-hop. With their knotty verbal feints, fractured beats and general air of purposeful frivolity, songs such as "Whoo-Hah (Got You All in Check)" and "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See" are tailor-made for big-arena chant-alongs.

And nothing gets a hip-hop crowd in a frenzy quite like an A-list cameo: P. Diddy and the Neptunes' Pharrell Williams bounded out during Rhymes' latest single, "Pass the Courvoisier," keeping the evening's party-hearty theme close to the surface.

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